Susan Granger’s review of “Victoria & Abdul” (Focus Features/Working Title)
Undiscovered until 2010, this revelatory historical footnote chronicles an improbable friendship that enhanced the elderly British monarch’s final years.
Bookended by a prologue and conclusion set in India, the period dramedy begins with a vivid depiction of how widowed, 81 year-old Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) was not only weary but also utterly bored by her perpetual Royal duties.
Until one evening at a dinner, she spots Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a tall, turbaned Muslim servant recently dispatched to London from Agra, along with a companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to present Her Royal Highness with a ceremonial coin for her 1887 Golden Jubilee.
Ignoring protocol, guileless Abdul makes not only makes eye contact with the Queen but also kisses her shoe. The next day, she imperiously demands that he and Mohammed remain at court.
Before long, Abdul becomes HRH’s “munshi” (teacher/spiritual advisor) and constant companion, piquing her curiosity about the Urdu language and the tenets of Islam. “We are here for a greater purpose,” he tells her.
As Empress of India, she wants to know more about that country and culture, which increasingly appalls her bigoted, jealous courtiers, headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), and repressive, resentful son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Prince of Wales, who subsequently became King Edward VII.
Inevitably, complications arise, revolving around Abdul’s marital status and health, but they remain close friends for 14 years – until Victoria’s death in 1901.
Freely adapted from a book by Shrabani Basu, Queen Victoria’s handwritten journals in Urdu and Abdul Karim’s private notebooks, it’s somewhat superficially scripted by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), who fails to flesh out Abdul’s character, discreetly skirting the obvious racial and colonial aspects.
But by coupling Judi Dench with Bollywood’s Ali Fazal, director Stephen Frears (“Philomena”) ignites an irresistible chemistry. And Dame Judi, who played a younger version of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), commands every scene she’s in.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Victoria & Abdul” is a sublimely subtle, ravishing 7 – aimed specifically at an older audience.