Victoria & Abdul is a biography-comedy-drama based on a book about the real-life relationship between Queen Victoria, portrayed by Judi Dench, and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal, in the final 12 years or so of the Queen’s life. The movie is based on the findings of an Indian journalist, Shrabani Basu, who discovered the relationship after a visit to the Queen’s summer house in 2003 and who, after further inquiries, was given the journals that Karim kept during his time in England and which had been saved by his family members thereafter.
The movie starts with scenes depicting an almost invalid Queen, being lifted from her bed each morning to be prepared for the day and treated nearly as a child who has to regularly relate her bowel movements to her doctor. On the other side of the empire, in Agra, India, a young Indian clerk, Abdul, is summoned to make a trip to England to bestow a mohur (or coin) upon the Queen for her Golden Jubilee in 1887.
The Queen takes a liking to Abdul and, over time, takes him into her household as a servant, later as her Munshee (or teacher) and bestows upon him honors and titles that cause discord among her other servants and her children (represented in the movie by her son Edward VII – Bertie – heir to the thrown).
A side story that is somewhat more interesting (but, possibly has no bearing in historical reality) is that of Mohammed, another Indian sent along with Abdul, but who has a great hatred for the empire, no love for life in England, and a great desire to go back home. Sadly, for Mohammed, as long as Abdul stays, Mohammed must stay as well. Eventually, the wretched English weather takes Mohammed down and he dies in England, never to see his home again. Mohammed serves as a comedy foil for much of the movie, but his story is a true tragedy.
Aside from the empire-periphery tensions, the movie also shows the bitter class divide, racial tensions and political infighting that seem to be still tenaciously among us in this day and age and even here an ocean away. Perhaps that is what gives the movie its universal appeal. While these tensions come out at various times while Victoria is still alive, she manages to stifle them. However, with her death, Bertie manages to evict Abdul and his family from their home and from England and burns as much of the evidence of Abdul’s relationship with the Queen as possible. That alone makes the story intriguing, for it withstood the test of time and furies of those who attempted to cover it up.
See Victoria & Abdul if you would like to see the always fabulous Judi Dench, if you want to see a sweet story of enduring friendship or if you’d like to see, as my guest, Andrew, put it, “a great period piece.” Whatever your reasoning, go see Victoria & Abdul; it’s an entertaining two hours, one way or another.
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Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Stephen Frears
Actors: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith
Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language