Stephen Frears tackled a portion of Queen Elizabeth II’s life with his 2006 film, “The Queen.” With his latest movie though he’s moving back in time by more than a century to look at a wholly different Queen of England and a portion of her rule. As the film’s title indicates, front and center in “Victoria & Abdul” is Queen Victoria, portrayed by Judi Dench (who previously played the figure in “Mrs. Brown”), and where the PBS series “Victoria” offers the start of her rule, Frears’ film is looking at some of the later years.
Rather than focusing on huge affairs of state, “Victoria & Abdul” instead looks at the Queen’s relationship with an Indian man, Abdul (Ali Fazal), who has been brought to England in order to present the Queen with a coin. Yes, of course the very notion of selecting a random Indian man to present the Queen with a coin the man has nothing to do with is absurd, but not as absurd as there being two random Indian men brought for the task, and Abdul travels to England with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).
Even that however isn’t as humorous as what transpires in England, from the Indian men being told that the real outfits they might have worn weren’t Indian enough for the pomp and circumstance required of all meetings with the Queen, to discussions of the Queen’s bowels, to so much more. Frears and the cast, which also includes Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, and Tim Pigott-Smith, handle the absurdity with aplomb. When it goes for funny, “Victoria & Abdul” is perfect, mixing wonderful bits of dialogue with amusing visuals. Frears’ film also manages to poke fun at both cultures without ever pushing things too far to one side.
As the story plays out, Abdul quickly becomes one of the Queen’s most trusted advisors, pushing her to learn more of India and its ways. The relationship is handled beautifully. Fazal is completely charming when drawing Dench’s Queen Victoria out her shell. He may be making life harder for Mohammed with these efforts (prolonging their return to India), but he seems almost powerless to stop himself. Rather than being their offices or general descriptions of a type of person, the two main characters are presented as full human beings.
That said, “Victoria & Abdul” is not perfect. Rather than being a completely lighthearted romp, the movie eventually turns towards more serious things and it doesn’t handle them with the same deftness. The Queen’s son, the Prince of Wales (Izzard), along with some of the Queen’s advisors and staff do not appreciate the relationship forming between the Queen and Abdul. These disgruntled individuals attempt to make the lives of the titular characters more difficult, while Abdul and the Queen attempt to negotiate these newly rocky waters.
The screenplay by Lee Hall is based on a non-fiction book by Shrabani Basu, and there may be some element of the truth of the events in these more serious moments (I have not researched it to find out where, exactly, the film may differ from the reality). However, truth doesn’t help this part of the film mesh with the more comedic areas of “Victoria & Abdul” any better.
The cast however still acquits themselves quite well after the switch. While one may laugh less at what transpires between the Queen and her new advisor, one does not get the sense that they are any less human, less real.
In the end, Stephen Frears has created a wonderful, beautiful, very funny, comedy of manners and colliding cultures. It is a comedy married to an able drama about palace intrigue, one which is interesting in its own right. Perhaps ironically, “Victoria & Abdul” fails where Victoria and Abdul succeed – melding these two disparate things into a single, unified, whole.
photo credit: Focus Features