Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul is about the unlikely relationship between Britain’s Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who was also Empress of India (from 1876), and one of her Indian subjects, Abdul Karim. In the opening scene, Abdul (Ali Fazal) is snatched by British soldiers from the jail in Agra where he is employed; chosen for his height, he is to deliver a ceremonial coin to the queen (Judi Dench) on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. He is accompanied on his journey to England by a compatriot, Mohammed Buksh (Adheel Akhtar), who is not pleased to be going to the land of his oppressors. With a wink to the audience, Frears begins his beautifully rendered film with an intertitle that states the story is based on real events . . . “almost.”
Abdul was indeed a member of Queen Victoria’s household and, according to biographer Julia Baird (Victoria, The Queen, 2016), taught his mistress Urdu, served as an advisor for visiting dignitaries from India and Pakistan, and cooked curries for the morbidly obese monarch. At the beginning of Victoria & Abdul, Queen Victoria is seated at a state dinner; 68 years of age in 1887, her Jubilee year, she quickly gulps her food and falls asleep before the dessert course. Frears makes great use of a convention, that guests can only eat while the monarch is eating, to infuse the scene with humor. Abdul arrives with Mohammed to present her with the coin, after which the young man, in a colossal break with decorum, looks directly at his empress.
It was a case of love at first sight, as shortly afterward, much to Abdul’s delight, the queen asks her secretary to delay the handsome Indian’s departure. Victoria and Abdul goes on to depict the controversial and platonic relationship that lasted until Victoria’s death in 1901, during which Abdul became the queen’s “Munshi” or tutor and was given a place at court. Dame Judi Dench, who portrays the monarch, did so once before, in John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997); there she was a younger queen and a grieving widow, who befriends John Brown (Bill Connolly), a Scottish servant in her employ. Like Abdul, Brown was unpopular with most of the queen’s staff and her family; while Brown was an alcoholic, Abdul’s flaw was apparently promiscuity.
In each case, Queen Victoria fiercely defended her friend and confidant against all detractors; in Victoria & Abdul, she must put off efforts by her heir, “Bertie” (Eddie Izzard), the future Edward VII, to declare her insane. Frears’s film illustrates the troubled relationship between the queen and her son, although American audiences may not know that history. She blamed Bertie, whose sexual escapades threatened the royal family’s reputation, for the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. On a journey he undertook to bring the young Bertie back into the fold, Albert became ill with typhoid. Many years on, in Victoria & Abdul, the queen has outlived everyone she loves. At first, Abdul represents an opportunity to regain the private life she has long been denied.
During production, Dench was 81, exactly the same age as Queen Victoria when she died. Her wonderful performance anchors a film in which the tone shifts dramatically from a tongue-in-cheek comedy that pokes fun at Victorian-era Britain and the queen’s squabbling advisors, to one that centers on the tender relationship between queen and subject. The screenplay by Lee Hall (War Horse, 2011) was adapted from the book Victoria & Abdul by Indian author Shrabani Basu (2011), who traveled to her homeland in order to gain access to Abdul’s diary. Basu is not the first author to discover the relationship that Edward VII tried to erase from history by destroying correspondence, and banishing Abdul from England after his mother’s death. The diary of Queen Victoria’s private secretary, Sir Henry Frederick Ponsonby (portrayed in the movie by the late Tim Pigott-Smith), published in 1951, contained many references to Abdul.
The most affective moment in Victoria & Abdul is the one of Victoria’s arrival, with her “Munshi,” on the Isle of Wight. The queen rests on the shore before they make their way to Osborne House, a summer retreat and the home where she later died. There she tearfully recounts her memories of happier times, with Prince Albert and then, later, John Brown, at her side. Abdul kneels beside his friend as she bemoans her fate, to have lived so long and to be so lonely. She asks Abdul, rather rhetorically, to name the point of it all, and the loyal and steadfast Abdul reminds her of her life of service. In his eyes, there is no more noble endeavor than to attend to others. Ironically, the accident of birth that destined them both to a life of service, makes them equals, and explains the deep and enduring bond they apparently shared.
Like all love affairs, theirs was not without its betrayals. Queen Victoria once discovers that Abdul lied to her about the role Muslims played in a revolt against the crown, and in the film, she nearly sends him back to India for that transgression. Fazal, who brings incredible authenticity and humility to his role, never questions that decision, nor its reversal. The intrigues of Victoria’s household against Abdul, and her efforts to safeguard their friendship against her scheming advisors, chronicled in the movie, leads the queen to accuse them of racism. That is an historical fact, not without irony. The queen’s real lack of prejudice and, it would seem, her utter indifference to class in her choice of lovers and friends, is in stark contrast to the legacy of the Victorian Era. Under her rule, the British Empire grew to the largest in modern history, colonizing one-fifth of the world.
In her biography of Victoria, Baird paints an unflattering picture of Abdul as an ambitious and pompous man, yet she concedes that the court never perceived “the value of the succor a quiet, attentive man brought to an aging queen.” If Victoria & Abdul stretches the truth in representing Abdul’s personality, it does so because the movie unfolds from Queen Victoria’s point-of-view. In that role, Dench’s willingness to forego every cosmetic, beautifying pretension sharpens the effect of her character’s manifold moods, by turns steely, shrewd, vulnerable and tender, so that an aging woman gains dimensions that may in great writing leap from the pages of a biography, but that is rarely duplicated in cinematic adaptations. A performance worthy of an Oscar, Victoria & Abdul is also likely to garner attention in many other categories, due in no small measure to Frears’s seemingly artless direction.
'Victoria & Abdul' premiered at the Venice Film Festival and opens in theaters on September 22.