Judi Dench has played the Queen of England three times in her career. She played Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown and again in Victoria & Abdul. She is acting royalty having won nearly every award available to her including one Oscar, ten BAFTAs, two Golden Globes, a Tony, and a host of others. She’s actual royalty, too, becoming Dame Judi Dench in 1988. She is magnificent in Victoria & Abdul.
At the time of her Golden Jubilee, Queen Victoria has grown lonely and tired of her fawning courtiers, the countless celebrations, and official gatherings. When she is presented with a special coin by Abdul (Ali Fazal), a tall, handsome Muslim Indian, she is intrigued and asks for him to serve her at other functions. He is unafraid to speak to her directly though as a servant he has no right to do so. She grows fond of his candor and of his inherent strangeness, and of his kindness.
Much to the chagrin of the Household, she makes him an official servant. Later, she promotes him to Munshi - a type of spiritual guide and teacher. He teachers her the Urdu language and about the Quran. When she hints that she’s going to give him a knighthood, the Household revolts.
An opening credit tells us this is (mostly) based on a true story. There really was an Abdul and it seems he did become a dear companion to the Queen late in her life. This did create untold friction amongst the Household. Where the truth lies and fiction begins I cannot say, but I suspect there is quite a bit of blurring of those lines.
The first half of the film acts like a fish-out-of-water tale mixed with a satirical farce about old British customs and their dependence on class and ritual. Stephen Frears directs it with a buoyancy making it a delightful romp. Watching Abdul get ever closer to the Queen, never quite comprehending the myriad of social rules and customs he is stepping right over, all the while the rest of the Household is increasingly infuriated is a joy to watch.
But about the time most of the Household make an ultimatum, things turn quite serious. Gone is the playfulness of the first half, replaced by overly serious drama. Suddenly, the Queen’s behavior towards the Munshi is deadly serious and is played out with utmost solemnity. This doesn’t work nearly as well as the humor.
A big part of the problem is that the film never seems to know what to make of Abdul. We’re never quite sure who he is. Is he a shyster looking to gain as much power and fortune as he can from the Queen? Or perhaps he hopes to disrupt the English Empire and help gain independence for his native India. Or is he just looking to climb to as high a position as this unique situation will allow? The film toys with these ideas before eventually settling into the thought that he’s just a decent sort of fellow who has come to admire and love the Queen.
Unfortunately even here, we never get to know Abdul, his motivations, or any depth of character. We meet his wife and mother, but his interactions with them are so few we do not know if he is a good husband or son-in-law. Even his time with the Queen seems stilted. Judi Dench is marvelous, both charming and kind, but full of cunning and guile. Fazal plays Abdul like a blank slate allowing the film (and audience) to make of him as it wishes, but it never gives us much to go on, which grows tiring before the film even begins to end. It is a shame because its first half was rather delightful.
The Blu-ray presents about as perfect as a picture as one can get. It's really quite beautiful and the film’s interesting and colorful set design looks exquisite. The audio likewise is quite wonderful. Extras include two short featurettes on the two main actors relationships with each other and the shooting locations.
Victoria & Abdul features a wonderful performance by Judi Dench and tells an interesting, (mostly) historical and untold bit of history. Its first half is really quite lovely, but it falters quite heavily in its back end. Still, it's worth watching for Dench and those interested in British history.