Victoria & Abdul has been billed as the most unlikely friendship in history. Theirs is a story that’s not only newly uncovered, but also sharply delightful. Dame Judi Dench once again takes up the mantle of legendary British monarch Queen Victoria. (She last inhabited the role 20 years ago in Mrs. Brown, which was also directed by Stephen Frears.) That effort earned Dench an Oscar nomination, and she makes a strong case for another with her turn as an 81-year-old Victoria, who tells us she’s watched everyone she truly loved die and is plainly uninterested in the endless events associated with her Golden Jubilee (in 1887). She naps at tables and bolts down food before asking those around her if everything is quite finished.
That is, until she meets Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Abdul, a clerk who works at a prison in India, is sent to England to present the Queen with a ceremonial gift during one of the many Jubilee events. He and his comrade, Mohammad (Adeel Akhtar), are given rushed instructions and the all-important direction not to make eye contact with the Queen. Mohammad desires nothing more than to go home, but Abdul finds himself unable to resist a last look at the Empress of India. They look eyes and suddenly, Victoria is roused from her discontent. It’s perhaps at this point in the film when the “mostly” based on fact label comes into play. But, even if the mutual attraction between a queen and a servant wasn’t instant, it sure plays nicely for a narrative feature. And indeed, the best and richest of friendships often share the electricity of romantic entanglements. So perhaps Victoria & Abdul recognized that in each other right away. Or perhaps Victoria decided demanding Abdul’s presence at additional events would be a fun way to ruffle feathers before she realized a deeper bond was possible. Whatever the case, we’re treated to a meet cute for the ages when Victoria addresses Abdul’s breach in decorum with a deadpan, “I thought he was terribly handsome.”
The meeting of these minds is quite enough to make the film fascinating, but Frears manages to find a wealth of humor in the stiff and exasperated responses of the household staff and the heir to the throne (Eddie Izzard). Where their intolerance speaks for the attitudes of the day (Victoria & Abdul’s history was unknown for more than 100 years after Victoria’s death thanks to her family’s efforts to erase him), Victoria is all curiosity for her new friend and his culture. She pines to learn new languages and to know the culture. Her desire to taste a mango results in some of the most delightful moments in the picture.
But there’s hesitancy here too. Frears chooses not to delve too deeply into the nature of their relationship. Showing us a powerful bond, but never clarifying its nature. Is it maternal? Spiritual? Platonic? Romantic? At turns we get hints of each. All we’re left to know for sure is that we’ve played witness to a beautiful, charming friendship that sheds a new light on one of lesser explored eras of one of the most iconic figures in all of history.
Victoria & Abdul is a properly delightful way to slide into the fall film season. The plot may stay surface level, but Dench and Fazal more than make up for that with infectious chemistry and emotional heft.