Victoria and Abdul – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Lee Hall (screenplay), Shrabani Basu (based on the book by)
Stars: Judi Dench, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon
Queen Victoria, during her long reign which began in 1837, enjoyed the companionship of three men in particular. Prince Albert, her husband, with whom she had nine children and who was incomparable in her eyes as both her consort and lover. He died in 1861 and Victoria remained in mourning until she herself died in 1901. John Brown, a servant at Balmoral, who became her close confidante following the death of Prince Albert. He in turn died in 1883. On 1st January 1877, following the passage of the Royal Titles Act, Victoria had become “Empress of India”. The year 1887 was the Golden Jubilee of her accession to the throne. Mohammad Abdul Karim was one of two Indians chosen to become servants of the Queen at that time. These appointments generated great jealousies amongst members of the Royal Household. These intensified as Abdul became the Queen’s eyes and ears on all matters Indian, about which she was greatly interested. The atmosphere towards him became hostile. He had unfettered access to the Queen and she called him the “Munshi”. He had a battalion of enemies.
The story is based on the real events described in the book by Shrabani Basu but intriguingly the credits qualify that statement with the little word “mostly”. So it is impossible to know what is fact or something else. At the beginning, the loneliness of the Queen is manifest even though she is surrounded by a myriad of servants of various rank rising at the apex to the Prime Minister. Her loneliness finds however an outlet in excessive eating. Judi Dench is superlative as the lonely, widowed Queen. An early scene has a banquet which has eight courses. The relish with which she devours quickly each dish is gluttonous, grotesque and magnificent in equal measure. Dench imposes her authority on the part. With steely determination, she re-enacts the Queen’s determination to put at nought the various plots hatched against the Munshi primarily because of his race but not often overtly stated. However the racism and snobbery of the Court permeates, like damp, everything.
Abdul is played by Ali Fazal and he has the difficult task of mixing being suitably servile, while yet intelligent, and also having a youthful masculine charm which might titillate the lonely old Queen just a little. No easy task but he carries it off. The cast includes Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, Simon Callow as Gianfranco Puccini, the composer, Eddie Izzard as Bertie, the Prince of Wales and Tim Pigott–Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s Private Secretary. Therefore the overall standard of the supporting cast is high even if Callow is somewhat over the top as Puccini.
This is a production made by the BBC. It is therefore a costume drama of considerable magnificence. The excessiveness of the Victorian interior and modes of dress are shown in all of their overly elaborate grandeur. It was filmed principally at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Victoria and Albert’s favourite residence. So the entire has an air of corseted and overstuffed verisimilitude.
At 82 years of age, Judi Dench gives a performance which is in the first rank. She brings her immense experience and intelligence to create a complex elderly lady, who notwithstanding the societal restraints surrounding her, finds through the Munshi a young man to delight her. Notwithstanding her extraordinarily cosseted existence, it is hard not to be touched by this unlikely bond between an old lady and a much younger man.