Victoria and Abdul

It’s all in the eyes. When Queen Victoria meets Mohammed Abdul Karim in June 1887, he quickly makes a strong impression. The Queen writes about him in her diary, that same day, mentioning that he is tall, with ‘fine serious countenance’, and is lighter skinned than his compatriot and fellow servant, Mohammed Buksh. It’s a droll story, as the film tells it; the pomp and formality of Court is displayed with quite some irony.

A close friendship blossoms and lasts through the last fifteen years of her reign. The Royal Household is dismayed, and her children, furious. The Queen has a cold relationship with her son, Bertie. Abdul Karim however occupies an important place in her heart. She writes to him every day, sometimes several times a day, with a motherly sign-off, and sometimes even flurries of kisses. After Victoria’s funeral, in 1901, Abdul Karim is cast out and sent back to India; his correspondence with the Queen confiscated and destroyed.

Beyond the issue of his humble origins, and his religion, the battleground that develops between Queen Victoria and her Household is explicitly about race.

All these are documented historical facts, and not poetic licence. This makes for a disconcertingly modern story. Victoria and Abdul is much less a costume drama than a biting satire, a comedy of manners, and a re-telling of facts. There is nothing quaint about this film, despite the period setting, the reconstruction of pomp, and the vast array of beautiful costumes.

Judi Dench’s reprise of her role as Queen Victoria brings amused pleasure, as we see her fight for her friendship and her autonomy. Her delight is touching, when early on in the friendship, she decides Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) will teach her Urdu; he becomes her Munshi, her teacher. She pronounces the word Munshi with relish. She describes him in a letter to her daughter as strict, and a perfect gentleman. But the pleasure of this friendship comes at a cost. It is understandable that the Household will see the Munshi as an interloper; the advantages he accumulates seem unfair; and in real life, there had been complaints of his high-handed manner, maybe bullying.

At one point, Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) suggests he will have her declared insane, and thus deposed. At another point, her whole Household poses an ultimatum – either the Munshi goes, or we go.

The Household’s shenanigans are a joy to behold – prissy indignation is in any case inherently comical but very fine performances turn the situation to delightful farce. Eddie Izzard as Bertie is a delight, and brilliantly cast; both Dench and Izzard have the porcelain blue eyes of their real-life characters; they are credibly mother and son in appearance as well as manner.

Tim Pigott-Smith plays Sir Henry Ponsonby to perfection, all resigned indignation, eventually shrugging off Bertie’s demands. Olivia Williams, as Baroness Churchill, is the picture of dignified discomfiture. Paul Higgins, as Dr Reid, the Queen’s physician, is all piqued outrage. Fenella Woolgar, as Miss Phipps, the Queen’s Chief Lady-in-Waiting, has just the right air of pinched self-righteousness to confront the Queen.

Puccini, the opera composer, makes a brief but memorable appearance courtesy of the ever delightful Simon Callow. We are even treated to a glimpse of Victoria’s first grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II (Jonathan Harden), at her deathbed. This merry troupe of characters all gang up on the Queen. She stands up to them, and denounces their racism.

The film is, in the main, historically accurate. The writer Shrabani Basu discovered exceptional primary sources, including Abdul Karim’s diaries, and as well as Queen Victoria’s own diaries, written over the course of more than a decade, in Urdu. That they were written in that language likely ensured their preservation, when so many other letters and photos from that long friendship had disappeared.

The film came to life through the efforts of producer Beeban Kidron, who brought in writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Frears.

Stylistically, the film appears to be a classic British costume drama. However, Queen Victoria’s steadfast and explicit anti-racism, as well as her religious tolerance, bring a welcome new element to the genre. This is reinforced by Adeel Akhtar’s character, the Munshi’s compatriot Mohammed Buksh: he has the best, harshest, funniest, and most forthright lines in the film. It is worth seeing this film just for that – those lines transcend the genre.

Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Lee Hall (based on the book by Shrabani Basu)
Producer: Beeban Kidron
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Adeel Akhtar, Eddie Izzard, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith, Fenella Woolgar, Simon Callow, Jonathan Harden

Originally published on Screenwords in September 2017