Styled as the unofficial sequel to Mrs Brown, which explored the relationship between British monarch Queen Victoria and her Scottish servant John Brown, Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul takes a look at the British monarch’s friendship with 24 year-old Indian man Abdul Karim.
Based on Indian journalist Shrabani Basu’s book of the same name, the film follows Karim (Ali Fazal) who is sent to England, along with another servant, Mohammad (Adeel Akhtar), for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 as a symbol of appreciation from British-ruled India. Victoria (Judi Dench reprises her queenly role 20 years after Mrs Brown) befriends Abdul and promotes him to the role of Munshi (a Persian word meaning language teacher). Their growing bond provokes outrage in court, and jealousy from those who feel threatened by Karim’s growing influence over the queen.
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The best thing about the film is Dench, who manages to skilfully portray every nuance of the monarch’s emotions – whether that’s playfulness, anger, or the heartbreaking loneliness of being at the top.
Fazal sparkles brilliantly when playing against Dench’s austere Victoria, and their chemistry feels completely natural and believable. Akhtar’s turn as the sceptical Mohammad, who doesn’t trust the country that colonised his own, is also very impressive.
The scenery and the costuming is second to none, and the score is stellar. But for all that, it’s also a little too much of a rose-tinted view of Britain’s past. Yes, the film centres on the discrimination faced by the two visiting Indians by the royal court, but the lighthearted and emotive comedy drama skips over the country’s brutal colonisation of India.
If you keep in mind the film is “based on true events … mostly” (as the disclaimer helpfully tells the audience at the start of the movie), and you view Victoria & Abdul a semi-fictitious look at an unexpected friendship with some fantastic performances, you will enjoy this film. Just don’t look for historical accuracy here.
Edited by Ginny Wong