Other than its central true story’s premise, one that is remarkable yet unfamiliar, there is almost nothing to surprise in Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul. An awards season period piece, it plays out exactly as you’d expect, pretty much beat for beat. But an enjoyable Judi Dench performance, some warm laughs, and a timeliness to its message lift Victoria and Abdul out of mediocrity.
Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was a Muslim Indian who, by sheer chance in 1887, was chosen to come to England and present a Moghul coin as a gift to Queen Victoria (Dench). Victoria took a liking to Abdul, so much so that she eventually took him on as her tutor, much to the dismay of the stuffily traditional Royal Household.
Presenting Victoria as a bastion of anti-racism comes off as lazy airbrushing, but there is something powerful in seeing a white world leader delighted by learning Urdu and the Qur’an. Dench is, of course, fantastic, saddened by her own aging and simultaneously finding a joyous energy with her new companion. It’s a role she could have sleepwalked through, but she gives a committed turn, bringing genuine pathos to the idea of the world’s most powerful woman being brought low by the march of time.
Fazal is less engaging, though, serviceable without leaving a distinct impression. Elsewhere, a series of fun guest roles and cameos from the likes of Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard and more manage to liven things up. Lee Hall’s script has plenty of jokes that land, the highlight being an hilarious set piece where Abdul and fellow Indian émigré Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are taught how to serve in the British style.
This stacked cast and gentle sense of humour, with a keen eye trained on the absurdities of British formality, ensure that Victoria and Abdul is consistently entertaining despite being inescapably generic.
CAST: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
WRITERS: Lee Hall (screenplay), Shrabani Basu (based on the book by)
SYNOPSIS: Queen Victoria strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim.