– By Cate Marquis –
Director Stephen Frears’ funny, charming VICTORIA AND ABDUL was inspired by a real event late in the life of Queen Victoria, when the aging British monarch had her mood brighten by the arrival of a visitor from India, much to the dismay of her advisers and her son, the crown prince. Judi Dench gives a brave and bitingly funny performance as the elderly Queen Victoria, which feels a bit like a kind of sequel to her role as the same queen earlier in life in 1997’s MRS. BROWN. Frears’ handsome historical comedy/drama has a script written by Lee Hall, who penned BILLY ELLIOT, and is based on journalist Shrabani Basu’s “Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant.”
In 1887, Queen Victoria (Dench) is celebrating her Golden Jubilee. After 50 years on the British throne, the queen’s life on a personal level has become a depressing routine, with formal lunches and dinners for hundreds of aristocrats and state formalities which she endures rather than enjoys. Long widowed and disappointed with her children, the lonely queen overeats and has little to look forward to each morning. She would probably like to just sleep in but an army of servants and courtiers ensure that never happens. After all, she is the queen.
However, one particular formal lunch includes the arrival of a pair of exotically dressed Indian men, who are there to present an commemorative coin as a gift from the Indian people for her Golden Jubilee. As everyone bows with eyes cast down, the monarch looks at the tall handsome young Indian presenting the gift. He has been instructed to never look at the queen but, against all protocol, he looks her in the eye, and smiles. Worse, he impulsively kissed her feet. She is immediately charmed as well as curious.
Once Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) catches the queen’s eye, she maneuvers to have him at her side and peppers him with questions about India, a part of her empire she had never visited. He dazzles her with glowing, poetic descriptions of his homeland which spark her imagination. He dazzled her with his glowing descriptions. and again breaking protocol, politely corrected her misconceptions about his homeland. When she assumed he was Hindu, he gently told her he was Muslim and told her there were many religions in India. When she asked him to teach her Hindi, he suggested instead he teach her Urdu, because it was a “noble language” more suitable for a queen.
With his warmth, naturalness, and infectious enthusiasm, an unexpected friendship quickly grows between them and Abdul quickly advances from footman to “spiritual adviser,” much to the dismay of the queen’s inner staff and especially her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII. Among the officials alarmed by the situation are Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), and Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith).
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