An amusing title appears at the end of the opening credits to director Stephen Frears’ often humorous account of the biographical period drama, Victoria & Abdul. It reads,‘Based on real events,’ then adds the word, ‘mostly.’
Yet, once seen, check the details of the film and you’ll find something interesting. The statement is actually less whimsical than the title suggests. It really is mostly true. And for anglophiles who thought they knew just about everything there is to know regarding the history of the British Royals, the story of the little known relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim should prove nothing short of fascinating.
There’s a good reason why the friendship was little known. The queen’s idiot son – her words – Albert Edward, who would later go on to become Edward Vll, King of England, ordered that every picture, every sketch, and every piece of correspondence that related in some way to Abdul and his mother should be destroyed, and upon his mother’s death, Abdul’s family should be dismissed from court and sent back to India. Abdul and his story would eventually fade from memory.
And the manservant’s story did fade. But when the memoir of a distinguished Victorian era British soldier and courtier, Frederick Ponsonby, was published in 1951, the story of Abdul resurfaced, forcing a more thorough and scholarly examination of Queen Victoria’s affection for her Indian attendant.
At its opening, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has formally ruled India for 29 years. It’s 1887, the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Back in India, a 24 year-old clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), is chosen to present her majesty with a special commemorative coin, minted from British India, a mohur, something that when placed in the middle of a plush, presentation cushion appears no larger than a nickel. Yet, it’s symbolic importance is enough to have the government ship Abdul and his accompanying friend, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) all the way from India to London to personally present the coin to the queen at a lavish royal court dinner.
“Do you know how cold it is?” asks a less than enthusiastic Mohammed to his friend when the prospect of going to England is first presented. “The place is completely barbaric,” he adds, and reminds Abdul that the British even eat fried congealed pig’s blood presented in the form of a sausage; which is true. It’s called Black Pudding and remains today an essential part of a traditional English breakfast.
When we first meet Victoria, she’s overweight, bored, and sad. As she will later lament, “Everyone I’ve loved around me dies, and I just go on and on.” It’s the seemingly endless year upon year of being a queen regnant that has made her what she is. Yet when, at that court dinner, Abdul bows and presents the commemorative coin to her majesty, their eyes meet, there’s a moment of connection, even though Abdul was instructed never to look directly at her majesty. When asked by a court representative what she thought of the coin from India, she responds, “I thought the tall one was terribly handsome.”
Abdul will go on to remain in England as a personal servant, footman, and even occasionally teacher, a Munshi, to Queen Victoria until her death, much to the annoyance of practically everyone in the Royal Household; a hostility born of snobbery, racism, and prejudice. But among the mounting jealousy for the queen’s platonic affection for the man from India, none was more hostile and ultimately vindictive than the queen’s son, Albert Edward; Bertie to the queen, Dirty Bertie to almost everyone else who knew him.
Acting honors will deservedly focus on Judi Dench, whose scenes of connection to Fazal feel genuine and often delightfully playful. There’s a certain sparkle and a new enjoyment of life that returns to the queen’s demeanor when in Abdul’s presence. But the surprise is comedian Eddie Izzard, so effective as the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, Albert Edward, a man more famous for his playboy activities, his sexual appetite, his personification of the lazy elite, and his presumption of entitlement than for anything else. He was undeserved of the throne, and appeared to be doing nothing other than passing the time having fun, the kind afforded the privileged while waiting with impatience to become king.
When backed by the queen’s personal secretary (the late Tim Piggot Smith for whom the film is dedicated) the whiny Bertie tells his mother that Abdul is a complete fraud, and adds, “He’s using his position for his own gain.” “And how does that make him any different from any of you?’ she angrily retorts, calling both her son and her secretary racists and despicable toads.
Based on the heavily researched book of the same name by novelist Shrabani Basu who finally put the pieces together from what evidence there was left of the events, Frear’s Victoria & Abdul is a hugely likable film that tells the story with grace, style, and a considerable amount of warm humor. To stateside audiences, because of its historic appearance, the costumes, the design, and its cast of outstanding British actors in supporting roles – look for Olivia Williams as Baroness Churchill, Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, and Simon Callow as Mr. Puccini – the film may initially appear as Oscar bait, but there’s a lightness in its overall telling that says it’s not. It’s simply very entertaining and fills a historic void that most never knew existed.
MPAA rating: PG-13 Length: 110 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)