Directed by: Stephen Frears | 111 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojla, Kemaal Deen-Ellis , Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe
The court of the British Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) fell asleep at the end of the 19th century following the routine of the elderly queen. While her power is constitutionally limited, she rules the vast British Empire from her palaces, including Empress of India. During the festivities around her 50 years on the throne, the Golden Jubilee, the idea is born to offer her a ceremonial coin from India. The commanders on the spot choose two men based on their height. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who works as a clerk in Agra Prison, is selected. On departure by ship to England the second tall man appears to have fallen off an elephant and his place is taken by the much smaller Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar). In a typical example of the snobbish indifference of the British, they are referred to as the “Hindus”, when the two men are actually Muslims.
Abdul is favored by Victoria and Abdul and Mohammed’s short trip leads to a permanent residence in the household. The queen, who was transported from palace to palace more or less like an insipid hermit by the following ceremony, is completely revived. Where Mohammed languishes in the English climate, the friendship between Victoria and Abdul flourishes. Soon, Abdul is always by her side, teaching her Urdu and acting as a close advisor. The court sees parallels with Victoria’s previous friendship with Scotsman John Brown and deeply detests Abdul, not hiding their racist views. When heir to the throne Edward (Eddie Izzard) – who was usually called Bertie – returns from his jet-set life in Monte Carlo and sees what his mother is up to, the turnips are done. The courtiers, head of household Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), personal physician Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins), Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), and lady-in-waiting Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) plot to get rid of Abdul to get rid of. Especially when Abdul’s past appears to be less rosy than he had predicted and his influence on the queen goes against established views and political interests.
“Victoria & Abdul” is an enjoyable costume drama with a good dose of British humor that paints a partially fictionalized portrait of the historic friendship between Victoria and Abdul. The scenario is partly based on the book by Shrabani Basu, who discovered the diaries of Abdul Karim discovered in 2010. Beautifully decorated, shot on location in India and England and sometimes even in the historic sites themselves, such as Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Director Stephen Frears opts for a light tone in the first half, with misunderstandings that at times seem farcical. Particularly witty are Muhammad’s asides over English food, nicely poking through all the pretensions and supposed moral superiority of the British over the Indians. The second half has a more dramatic tone and is therefore less in keeping with the previous half. It is also a pity that we actually do not learn much more about the “Munschi”, as Abdul Karim was called. The focus is on the cultural and religious divide – Abdul’s wife and mother-in-law arrive in a burqa, for example – and the court’s responses to the alleged inappropriateness of an Indian servant coming so close to power (threatening their own position. ). In doing so, the film opts for a fairly one-dimensional approach.
Judi Dench is happy to reprise her role of Victoria, who she played 20 years earlier in “Mrs. Brown “. With her phenomenal acting she takes the film to a higher level than it deserves based on the superficially told story. She also has a nice chemistry with the much younger Fazal and together they make the close friendship between the queen and the clerk very credible. Fazal acts with a cheerful face and great innocence, which contrasts sharply with the court’s accusations that he is an opportunistic fortune seeker, taking advantage of a lonely old woman.
By the way, Dench was now as old as Victoria herself when filmed, which is a funny detail, considering that Mrs. Brown came out in 1997, but in this film John Brown had died only four years before. Dench dominates every scene, with lots of close-ups to capture her facial expression and look.
The usually flamboyant Izzard also impresses as a fairly modest Bertie, the Prince of Wales. First of all, corpse
It’s surprisingly like (photos of) the real Bertie, including the drooping eyelids and bags under the eyes. Moreover, he knows how to put enough subtlety in his playing, for a rather “flat” role on paper as the nominal villain of the story. Izzard cleverly knows how to avoid making a swipe of it and to make Bertie somewhat sympathetic out of his concern and love for his mother. The other actors also show excellent acting work.
The film is less successful than “Mrs. Brown ‘, perhaps because of the unbalanced and superficial tone, but is well worth it. If only because of Judi Dench.