This British-American film is based loosely on a book of the same name (with the subtitle, “The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant”) written by Shrabani Basu in 2010. It tells the story of the real-life relationship between Queen Victoria and an Indian Muslim commoner, Abdul Karim, in late 19th century England.
The film was photographed on location on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom. The Director of the film, Stephen Frears previously directed Judi Dench in the movie “Philomena” (2013), and Dench has previously played Queen Victoria in the multiple award-winning, “Mrs Brown” (1997).
Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), is lonely and depressed, after the death of John Brown, and she forms an “unlikely” attachment to Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome, 24yr. old Indian, who was formerly a clerk at Agra Central Jail. Karim unexpectedly finds himself a servant to Queen Victoria as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. As well as the Queen of England, Queen Victoria is Empress of India, and she is now an unhappy prisoner of the English court, trapped in endless official engagements which give her no real joy. After presenting the Queen with a ceremonial medal, as expected, Abdul breaks court protocol by making eye contact with her at a dinner function, and a relationship begins.
Abdul became the Queen’s cherished manservant, and a trusted teacher, who instructed her in the language of Urdu and Indian affairs. The Queen’s relationship with Abdul quickly became controversial in the Royal Household, and there were many attempts to destroy it. Attempts to interfere or subvert the friendship frequently showed racism and prejudice by the monarch’s advisors and staff.
Despite attempts to plot the downfall of a person who was “completely common”, Abdul grew in influence with the Queen at a time when the forces of independence were increasing in the sub-continent of India, but the film is less a story of politics than it is a tender story of the relationship between an Indian servant and his elderly Queen. It is a moving story of friendship, affection and loyalty, and the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul lasted until Queen Victoria died.
This is Judi Dench’s movie. She is the grand dame of British theatre and cinema, and her performance as the ageing Queen doesn’t disappoint. Her dressing down of her advisors for daring to think she might be insane to support Abdul is a marvellous moment in the film. Her speech is a withering put-down of prejudice, and she shows how much she dominates the role.
Dench brings authority and humanity to the part of a reigning sovereign, who likes to snatch a little bit of sleep between main course and desert at official functions. Ali Fazal charms in his role of Karim, but he hasn’t a great deal to contribute to the plot line beyond someone who stayed loyally by the Queen’s side and supplied the warmth and friendship that an ageing Queen needed.
Abdul’s influence in real life obviously had political relevance, but in this movie Abdul’s motives are never really explored. The politics on the human front come mostly through Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izard), who grows ever tired of his mother’s inability to pass away, and the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Piggot-Smith), who feels immensely put out by Abdul in his efforts to stay at the centre of the Queen’s attention.
The film is splendidly visually mounted, but it is Dench’s performance that provides the film’s amiable intimacy that is so enjoyable. The film is not a political tour-de-force, nor is it a movie that tellingly exposes the power dynamics of Royal Courts, or the disadvantages of colonialism. It is not that kind of movie. For the most part, the film stays firmly at the level of providing light entertainment that very enjoyably charms.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting