It’s too good a story to let the truth get in the way of it: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) is said to have struck up an intimate quasi-romantic friendship with a male Indian servant during the later years of her reign and to have made Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) her personal munshi (teacher) in defiance of court whispers and opposition. With this softly entertaining, teasing dive into the tale, director Stephen Frears (‘The Queen’) and screenwriter Lee Hall (‘Billy Elliot’) serve up a lavish rendering of late-Victorian court life, with detours to India and Italy and plenty of bite-your-tongue implausibilities along the way. Some good one-liners (‘Everything in Scotland is scratchy!’) help to cancel out some clunkers: would Victoria really have uttered anything so modern as ‘hurt my feelings’?
It’s broad stuff, loaded with eye-grabbing design and locations and peppered with fun and fruity character turns at every remove (Eddie Izzard as the aggrieved future Edward VII, Michael Gambon as the PM, Simon Callow as Puccini). So thankfully Judi Dench provides much needed weight as the Queen, playing the same role as two decades ago in ‘Mrs Brown’. But even Dench, while adeptly highlighting the vulnerabilities of age and the loneliness of power, can’t distract from the soft treatment, which leaves little room for the harsh realities of prejudice which must have made this a more painful and ugly chapter for many involved than this film ever dares suggest. ‘He’s the brown John Brown,’ is as far as the sniping goes.
Hall’s script mildly pokes fun at courtly pomposity, while eventually treating the relationship between Victoria and Karim as a balanced friendship – when surely the truth was more difficult. It's pretty obvious where the power lies here, yet most complexities are sidelined. ’Victoria and Abdul’ plays first as a gaudy fish-out-of-water ensemble comedy and only later settles into something gentler and mildly serious as Victoria begins to wane and the opposition to Karim grows. This is kid-gloves historical storytelling. It’s sometimes amusing, and occasionally touching, but there’s nothing here to scare the horses.