Victoria & Abdul Review

Essentially a sequel to the 1997 hit Mrs Brown, this film returns Judi Dench to play Queen Victoria in another relationship that shook up the royal household. It’s such a perfect role for Dench that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing her, and this film traces Victoria’s final 15 years with plenty of lively humour and some pointed drama. The story is a bit thin, and some elements are difficult to believe, but it’s thoroughly engaging.

The story opens in 1887, as Abdul (Ali Fazal) is selected to travel from India to London with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) to present Queen Victoria (Dench) with special honour. In London, Abdul and Mohammed are called “the Hindus” even though they’re Muslims, and told to stay out of sight with the servants. But Abdul catches the Queen’s eye, and she brings him into her household as a personal tutor in Urdu and Islam. Her staff (headed by Tim Pigott-Smith) doesn’t like this at all, and conspires with both the heir to the throne (Eddie Izzard) and the prime minister (Michael Gambon) to undermine Abdul’s influence. But Victoria isn’t having any of it, demanding that they respect him.

This is a story that was hidden for more than a century, because after Victoria’s death all references to Abdul were erased from the official history. It was only the discovery of Abdul’s journals that revealed the truth, and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) has clearly taken some artistic licence as he crafted the facts into an entertaining narrative that’s packed with hilarious touches. Meanwhile, Stephen Frears (The Queen) directs in jaunty Downton Abbey style, never quite taking anything seriously.

Of course, watching Dench in this role is a pleasure, so the smooth, sweet storytelling approach goes down a treat. Dench never hedges the role at all, nailing Victoria’s steeliness and vanity while also revealing a mischievous curiosity. Opposite her, Fazal is likeable and a little dull, while the actors playing the family and staff have a lot more fun with their conspiratorial roles.

All of this is assembled into a frightfully British package, with exceptional period details and a heavy dose of irony and sarcasm. Some scenes feel almost ridiculously overdone, accompanied by a twinkling score by Thomas Newman. And the blending of comedy and melodrama sometimes feels like a stretch, especially as it obscures most of the more interesting things happening under the surface. But it’s all so enjoyable that it would be rude to complain.