Victoria and Abdul

Year: 2017
Studio: BBC Films
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Lee Hall
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams

At first glance this seems like the kind of movie some historian or screenwriter found a very tenuous footnote for somewhere in history, spinning a grand tale out of it with lots of liberties taken. That seems especially the case when the movie pokes fun at how true to life it is with the opening title card.

In fact journalist Shrabani Basu found the elderly monarch had indeed written about her friend and confidante that 'I am so very fond of him. He is so good and gentle and understanding… and is a real comfort to me.'

She learnt that the royal court actually were so horrified by Victoria's having been so taken with him they subsequently excised any existence of the relationship from history, but that he schooled Victoria in language and enjoyed her largesse over the course of 14 years.

It's also the second time Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria befriending an unlikely suitor, like she did in that old Merchant Ivory-esque classic Her Majesty Mrs Brown (if we believe what the movies tell us, the woman spent half her reign making frowned-upon friendships with an eclectic group of unlikely people).

It starts out like a comedy, when Karim Abdul (Ali Fazal) and his comic sidekick co-worker are selected to travel all the way to England to present Victoria with some ceremonial trinket at an opulent state dinner. The pair of them spend their trip bickering about their patronising colonial rulers and looking forward to going home, but Karim becomes increasingly fascinated with the Queen and her seat of power.

Fate intervenes and delivers Karim into Victoria's presence a few more times, and when he oversteps his lowly station to make conversation with her the notoriously prickly queen becomes equally fascinated, both of them becoming fast friends.

The court is horrified when she appoints him to teach her Urdu and the Qu'ran, a brown-skinned commoner getting such private access to the most powerful political figure in the world. In doing so two strong themes emerge. The first is of a colourful, lively cat being thrown amongst the very stuffy pigeons and shaking up very traditional European status quos – as American a narrative idea as there's ever been with their disdain for structured authority.

But the other is how even though Victoria is a ruler in command of the largest political force the human race had ever amassed she's also a lonely, tired old lady, surrounded by political plotting and backstabbing while everyone jostles to usurp or co-opt her, none of them a true friend she can just talk to about her doubts, fears or regrets.

As the stakes grow higher and powerful interests (no matter how comically they're portrayed) want Karim removed, the comedy evaporates and you start to really worry about what will happen where his only ally in the whole mess – an ailing and very elderly woman – won't be around to protect him.

And the movie follows through on that promise, the scenes of what the powers that be do to Karim and his family afterward as sad and gut wrenching as the first act was flighty and funny. As director Stephen Frears quickly informs you, you weren't actually watching a comedy at all.

The character work is good and it manages to juggle a few different tones well enough to keep you interested, but it's the monologue by Dench somewhere around the halfway mark, owning up to all her faults but doing so to assert iron-fisted authority in the face of her snivelling hangers-on that's like a firework going off.

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