Film Review: ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is a Charming Tale of Friendship

If you are looking for a charming film that will leave you feeling uplifted, look no further than “Victoria & Abdul.”

Set in the waning days of the reign of Queen Victoria, this is the true story of an unlikely and controversial friendship. The film opens on Abdul (Ali Fazal), a clerk in an Indian jail. He unexpectedly finds himself swept up in an important assignment to deliver a gift to the Queen. British officials selected Abdul for one very important reason: his height.

Before he knows what is happening, Abdul finds himself on a ship, making a 5000 mile voyage from India to England. His travel companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) was conscripted because someone else fell ill. And Mohammed would rather be anywhere else in the world than on a boat traveling north. But, despite all of Mohammed’s complaining, Abdul is possessed with the spirit of optimism. He can find the good in any situation. Fazal conveys so much of this good nature through kind eyes and the constant ghost of a smile. Throughout the film, he never complains.

It is unclear how long the voyage takes them. What seems onscreen like week or so of sea travel may, in fact, have taken months. And probably did. While the film opened on a somewhat hasty and frenetic scene, with British soldiers in a rush to get the Indians to England as soon as possible, the time becomes incoherent in some places.

Eventually they do arrive in England, however. They are rushed from the boat to the castle as if everyone has been waiting impatiently for this momentous occasion. Everyone except the elderly Queen Victoria.

Judi Dench earned her first Academy Award nomination for playing Queen Victoria in the 1997 film, “Mrs. Brown.” That film centered around the dowager queen’s controversial relationship with a servant by the name of John Brown. That relationship is referenced several times throughout “Victoria & Abdul” as the Queen’s family and household staff become concerned about her relationship with Abdul.

Dench’s introduction to this incarnation of Queen Victoria is humorous, but also sad. The aging queen is literally pulled out of bed each morning. Her staff dress her in black mourning attire. No one speaks. It is clear the Queen’s life is empty and lonely.

So when Abdul arrives on the scene, bright-eyed and eager to make her smile, it is little wonder she responds so immediately. When Abdul and Mohammed present their gift of a Moghul coin at a state dinner, she hardly notices. But when he breaks a rule and makes eye contact with the monarch, he has her accidental attention. This leads to a chain events in which the Queen, much to the chagrin of her son and heir Bertie (Eddie Izzard), promotes Abdul. She gives him the unofficial title of “Munshi.” Munshi is a Persian word that generally refers to a teacher. He teaches her Urdu and history and gives her lessons about the Qu’ran. She gives him a place of honor in her household.

The story of “Victoria & Abdul” comes from the book by Shrabani Basu. Basu heavily researched the little-known true tale. Basu was able to recover journals the Queen wrote in Urdu. The translations revealed a tale of true friendship that lasted throughout Queen Victoria’s final years.

One of the things that worked particularly well with “Victoria & Abdul” was the tone. Throughout the story, Bertie and members of the staff spend their time trying to force an end to the relationship. They contrive mental defect, find medical diagnoses, and are rude at every turn. Instead of focusing on or giving credit to the naysayers, the film instead details a delightful friendship. It is often funny, turning the enemies ridiculous. Demonstrating their pettiness and highlighting their racism. At times the film had definite notes of previous Frears films including “Philomena.” It was not completely light-hearted, but didn’t dwell too long on the sad or maddening aspects of the story.

The performances from Judi Dench and Ali Fazal are pleasant. They are fun to watch together. Fazal, a newcomer to American film, is a good match for the veteran Oscar winner. Their relationship feels natural and uplifting.

The supporting performances tend to be average roles. It isn’t that the roles are uninteresting, but that the people in them are given little to do. Eddie Izzard has the biggest part to play aside from the two leads, and he does well with it. But the spoiled, demanding son is a role that has been done many, many times before.

Likewise, Akhtar’s Mohammed is a complaining, unhappy man who just wants to go home. He is fun to watch in his limited screen time, and provides a sometimes comical foil to the perpetually smiley Abdul.

The rest of the supporting cast includes Tim Pigott-Smith (“Jupiter Ascending”), Paul Higgins (“Line of Duty”), and Olivia Williams (“An Education”). Their performances are all fine, but conventional. They are simply present to accomplish the task of demonstrating how managed Queen Victoria’s life had become, and how stodgy the British aristocracy was.

In the end, “Victoria & Abdul” accomplishes what it sets out to do. It entertains. It is a delightful story of two people with nothing at all in common, and the friendship they forge. In a time when the fight for diversity is reaching a crescendo, this hundred-year-old story feels surprisingly modern.

“Victoria & Abdul” is now playing in selected theaters and is distributed by Focus Features.

GRADE: (★1/2)

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