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East Goes West In Victoria & Abdul
In 1887, two Indian men received a most unusual assignment. They were sent to England to be a part of Queen Victoria's 50th anniversary on the English throne. Their original plans, though, change by royal prerogative in Victoria & Abdul. A jail clerk named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and another employee of the British named Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) receive the task of presenting Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a ceremonial coin. While remaining silent as ordered, he does something unrehearsed - he kisses the Queen's foot as a show of respect. He and Mohammed accompany the Queen on her travels to her various residences as a part of her entourage. Instead of sending them home as scheduled, she retains both men in her employ. She has grown fond of both men, especially Abdul.
Through him, Victoria starts to learn about Indian culture and history. Abdul even teaches her Urdu. When she learns Abdul is married, Victoria sends him home for his wife and her mother. In time, the Queen names Abdul her munshi, the Urdu word for teacher. In addition to teacher, Abdul becomes a confidant. That does not sit well with her staff, other government leaders like Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), or Prince Bertie Of Wales (Eddie Izzard), the heir apparent to the throne. Eventually, the staff threatens to resign if Victoria doesn't send Abdul home.
Victoria & Abdul marks Dench's second time playing Queen Victoria, following 1997's Her Majesty Mrs. Brown (also known simply as Mrs. Brown). Director Stephen Frears tries to keep the tone light, as John Madden with the earlier film. Frears succeeds at that, but doesn't address the serious issues of bigotry and the rule of the British Raj, which began during Victoria's reign. Abdul simply accepts their existence without any obvious resentment. Victoria only addresses these problems briefly. Abdul becomes a confidant, as John Brown had while he lived and served the Queen. The screenplay by Lee Hall, which is based on a novel by Shrabani Basu, is light on characterization outside of its title characters.
In spite of the film's issues, Dench does well in her second screen performance as the longtime monarch. Victoria, by this time, has grown old and bored with ceremony. She continues to miss both Prince Albert and John Brown, but she becomes interested in the well-spoken Abdul. Even though unable to travel to India, she wants to be an Empress Of India who knows how to communicate with many of them. Fazal is decent as Abdul, a man who unexpectedly gets the attention of his leader. Even as he faces open disdain to his race, he maintains a calm and pleasant demeanor. Izzard is decent as well as the future Edward VII, but his performance, like Fazal's, is limited to just one note. Other performances include Tim Pigott-Smith as royal head of household Henry Ponsonby, Olivia Williams as the often disagreeable Lady Churchill, and Simon Callow as Puccini, who entertains the title characters when they visit Italy.
The more recent biopics about Queen Victoria, which include The Young Victoria, suggest this leader had three special men in her life, the last of whom was Abdul Karim. Victoria & Abdul may not balance the relationship and the drama very well, or go into depth about that period in history, but the film maintained my interest in the time the two spent together. It remains consistent with the portrait of this woman other films depicted, where she was a student of the world around her, and a person who didn't extend trust easily. The time between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim showed two people who wished to learn, no matter what others might think.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Victoria & Abdul three stars. A small royal treat.