Stephen Frears is no stranger to depicting history on film or working with Judi Dench. From “Philomena” to their newest collaboration, “Victoria & Abdul,” the pair are reunited to bring us a touchingly sweet and previously unknown true story. In this film, Queen Elizabeth (Dench) befriends an Indian clerk, Abdul (Ali Fazal) who becomes her closest confidant and teacher, much to her family’s chagrin. With the same artistic and emotional hand that garnered Oscar buzz for “Philomena” and “Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Meryl Streep, Frears brings Shrabani Basu’s book and Lee Hall’s screenplay to life, allowing us to better know a key woman in history.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE
“Victoria & Abdul” takes us back to an era when British Royalty ruled the India and the Queen busied herself with unmemorable dinner events complete with special presentations. One presentation included a ceremonial coin from India, presented by two clerks who were shipped to England especially for this event. Abdul was chosen for no other reason than that he was tall. His height changed the course of his life, and the Queen’s, forever. Given strict instructions to never make eye contact during the presentation, Abdul inadvertently does so and there is an immediate connection of curiosity and kinship. As time goes by, the Queen brings him into her inner circle, defying and challenging her entire staff and her self-serving grown children. The prejudice and misunderstandings of those that surround the Queen accentuate her wisdom and intelligence. She is progressive and a bit of a Renaissance woman as she finds a new lease on life—learning, laughing, and loving a new friend.
The story carries a heavier weight than just a sweet story about unlikely friends for many reasons. First, it’s a true story based on Abdul’s diary found in 2010. To imagine this high-powered woman having the openness and bravery to go against the grain in that time period is simply inspirational. We learn about the personality of a woman that most of us think of only as an imprint on a coin. While there are certainly parts of the story filled in with poetic license, the overall essence is that the Queen was revitalized thanks to the friendship of this kind man who cared deeply for her as a human being. Secondly, and most unfortunately, that open-mindedness was not seen among any of the staff or her family and their ill-will toward Abdul and the Queen was shocking yet familiar in today’s society. As our own misunderstandings of different ethnicities and religions are repugnantly evident, so too was it back in the early 1900’s. Lack of knowledge was the key downfall, particularly as it relates to the Muslim religion…and this still holds true today.
As we are plunged into the breathtaking wealth and pageantry of royalty, we watch Dench in this role, knowing that it must have been written with her in mind as she seems to be channeling the spirit of the beloved and feared Queen. She skillfully portrays this initially disinterested and bored woman who just gets through the day.
You feel her resentment and disappointment in life and love, but after meeting Abdul, she creates a subtle yet detectible twinkle in her eye. She changes inwardly and we grow to love this old woman as she reveals a greater part of herself. Fazal fits the role of Abdul like a glove, truly embracing the characteristics of a gracious man from India. The two together are simply magnetic, creating an energy force that is captivating. His calm demeanor settles the Queen and her need to learn is quenched with Abdul’s far-reaching skills, particularly with languages. It feels as if neither actor is actually acting—it’s an organic and genuine connection.
Of course, there’s humor in this film. Dench is a master, well, at everything, but she uses her natural talents to convey humor at just the right moments. With a wink of an eye or a pause in her speech, she makes us chuckle and therefore, connect with her character. While we learn of the history during that time period and bask in the glory of the gorgeous costuming and elegance of the era, these are all secondary. They are important to transporting us to England and India in the early 20th century, but at the heart of this film is two unlikely people who connect on a different and higher level. The lessons they learn are ones that we could all use to make our current world and future history a more pleasant one.
The one drawback to the film is that the characters seem to be either all good or all bad, giving it a “Disney” effect. The script, at times, is a bit too sappy, but somehow, with Dench and Frears, that is forgiven and we can look beyond that and just enjoy the story.
“Victoria & Abdul,” thanks to Frears direction and a stellar cast, is a wonderfully enjoyable film that will lift your spirits and teach you a little bit about history and perhaps even open your eyes to the way we treat others. History doesn’t have to repeat itself. (Bring some tissues.)