British royal protocols can be exceedingly complex. In an amusing early scene in “Victoria and Abdul,” Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) dinner guests learn they must eat quickly or risk their plates being cleared as soon as the queen is finished with hers. Abdul (Ali Fazal), a representative from India who is to present a gift to Victoria at the conclusion of that meal, is instructed to avoid looking at the monarch. Instead, he takes a glance and even smiles at the queen.
This momentary break with tradition starts a relationship which will cause uproar in the royal court. Far beyond giving the queen a ceremonial gift, Abdul will offer her friendship in her sunset years. Based on Shrabani Basu’s book and Abdul’s journals (discovered in 2001), Lee Hall’s script for “Victoria and Abdul” shares events which the credits note are “mostly” true.
Abdul is one of two Indian representatives chosen to journey to London and present a ceremonial coin for the queen’s Diamond Jubilee. While Abdul considers this to be a great honor, his companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) does not. Where Abdul sees adventure, Mohammed only hopes the ordeal will be over quickly.
Queen Victoria’s unconventional friendship with Abdul shocks and horrifies her court. Yet, Victoria and Abdul find each other fascinating. Curiosity unites them. Widowed for 26 years, Victoria is first attracted to Abdul’s handsome looks and then is fascinated by his stories of India. Despite ruling as the Empress of India, Victoria never visited that nation. So, Abdul’s tales of the Taj Mahal and Indian cuisine fascinate her. He, in turn, enjoys having a respectful audience.
Victoria desires to learn more about the culture and traditions of India. So, she asks Abdul to be her teacher or “Munshi.” Abdul’s access to the queen causes jealousy within the royal household. The queen’s advisors especially object to a non-white man having an official role. The quartet campaigning to discredit Abdul and remove him from Victoria’s life is made up of her spoiled eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), her vindictive physician Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins), her weak chief of staff Sir Henry Ponsonby (the late Tim Pigott-Smith), and the viperous Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams).
This is not the first time Victoria has had to defend her choices, despite being the queen. Audience members who have seen the films “Young Victoria” or “Mrs. Brown” (also starring Dench as the monarch), or the current PBS series “Victoria,” will be familiar with her challenges. As in so many royal courts, power-hungry relatives and staff challenged the ruler’s authority.
“Victoria and Abdul” presents a chapter late in the life of Victoria. Directed by Stephen Frears, the film begins with humor, eventually seguing to a more serious tone as the queen and Munshi fight to preserve their friendship. At the beginning of the film, Dench’s Victoria has no enthusiasm for her Diamond Jubilee. Abdul’s presence helps her emerge from a cocoon of depression. Dench thoughtfully portrays the queen as a strong, warm, determined woman who appreciates the company of an attentive and interesting man. The close-up on Dench’s face during a scene in which the queen lists her strengths and weaknesses is very moving.
In his American film debut, Indian film star Fazal brings an innocent sincerity to Abdul. Victoria’s insensitive staff assumes Abdul and Mohammed are Hindu. Instead, both are Muslim. Fazal respectfully presents Abdul’s pride in his heritage and his eagerness to share an understanding of his faith and the Urdu language. In our current time in which Muslim values are negatively examined under a microscope, it is refreshing to see a presentation of a Muslim character who is not a terrorist but is a dignified man and a loyal subject of his monarch.
As Abdul’s compatriot Mohammed, Ahktar plays a darkly comical character. Also Muslim, Mohammed worries about dietary issues and is not a fan of British rule. Ahktar’s character has some of the most amusing lines in Hall’s script. However, occasionally Hall includes non-Victorian phrases such as “dish the dirty” within Mohammed’s dry commentary. While providing humor, such lines slightly tarnish the film’s historical tone.
On the other hand, the scenery and costuming in “Victoria and Abdul” add to the sense of the era. Frears’ camera follows Victoria between various royal residences including Buckingham Palace, Balmoral, and the picturesque Isle of Wight estate. Designer Consolata Boyle’s costumes are impressive. Queen Victoria’s gowns, including the white one in which she was buried, are elegant and opulent. The costumes for all the cast, including the multitude of servants, feature great attention to detail.
Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire from age 18 to 82. As she experienced challenges to her authority, she had to learn to whom she should give her confidence. “Victoria and Abdul” illustrates the power of a true friendship that withstood pressures and transcended many differences to enrich the lives of a queen and a Munshi.