Judi Dench is Queen of England, Empress of India, and an actress who can make the most ardent Anglophobe feel compassion for the lot of a lonesome monarch. After watching the PBS mini-series “Victoria” (2017) and seeing the girl-queen circa 1837, it is interesting to see her fifty years later making a confidant out of a tall and handsome youth from Agra, India. 1887 has her nine children later and prone to nod-off and snore even during celebratory events. Abdul ‘s attention gives her back that spark of life. In truth, no one can put that lustful pronunciation of ” my munshi ” quite like Dench. Film director Stephen Frears shows her Golden Jubilee as a comedy of manners.
Strong-willed, her husband dead at forty-two, Victoria sat sixty-three years on the throne. Author Shrabani Basu while writing a book on curry knew of the Queen’s penchant for the Indian dish. Basu mulled through millions of words in Victoria’s extant diaries and wondered about a formal portrait of a young Indian man painted as an aristocrat. ” Victoria and Abdul” was born. Screenwriter Lee Hall uses Basu’s research and book to show us the prejudices of the court and the mind-romancing of the queen for the handsome Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal ).
Episode after episode, we hear of rules: do not look at the queen, stand till the end of the meal, process together backward. The churlish queen is portrayed as tired of it all. The Hindi chide about the royal pudding being made with cow bone: the English regarded as barbaric eaters. The class divide is the divide. It is only as her teacher, or “munshi”, that we understand the thirteen-year relationship where Abdul instructs Victoria in Urdu and on the poetry of Rumi. He becomes a platonic Mr. Brown.
Their relationship is portrayed as endearing while troublesome for the heirs and Prime Minister. The Queen appoints Abdul as her personal guide to India. The Taj Mahal and the mango is juxtaposed against wet and windy Scotland and its whiskey. Aristocrats toadying for position and even her own children can not compete with Abdul’s charm and world view: we are here for the aid of others.
There is much give and take. The Queen presents Abdul with a locket enclosing her portrait. She whispers, ” Keep me safe”. She introduces him to Puccini and to Florence. Viewers see the one villain in Bertie, her eldest son. He has Abdul’s home ransacked for any embarrassing memorabilia. Abdul’s wife manages to save the locket from the flames. Bertie considers having his mother certified as insane. Before the Queen’s death scene, she tells Abdul that it is time he return to India. ” The vultures are circling. How can I protect you?!” Melodramatic and fanciful, yes.
Her name defined the Victorian Age, and now we have another name to add: Abdul Karim, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Yes, he may have been currying favor and beating the sycophants at their own game; but in this film, he brought joy to a morose queen tired of jealous skullduggery and pomp.