Stephen Frears’ lively account of how a lowly Indian servant became Queen Victoria’s favourite features another superb turn by Judi Dench as the Widow of Windsor in her twilight years
20 years after Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, the touching true story of how the imperious monarch befriended her manservant and bit of rough, John Brown, she returns as Victoria in this lively account of her controversial friendship with Indian footman Abdul Karim.
Between the queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 to her death in 1901, Karim rose from ceremonial flunky to become Victoria main confidant, teacher and Munshi - much to the anger and horror of the royal household and, indeed, her son and heir to the throne, Bertie.
Karim is played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal as a slightly impish social climber who uses his abundant charm and good looks as everyone else jostles pathetically for position around Victoria’s orbit. Just call him Mrs Brown’s new boy.
It all seems rather fanciful but even if Stephen Frears accentuates the comedic elements of the story, it is all true. Mostly.
When we first see Dench as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, she is snoring loudly under the bed covers and reluctant to rise to another day of protocol and the blandishments of her counters. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, her wastrel son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard channelling his inner James Mason) is secretly praying that the old bird will fall off her gilded perch so he could be crowned Edward VII.
Still wreathed in black a full thirty years after the death of her beloved Albert and four years since the passing of John Brown, she is bored, lonely and isolated as she faces into her final years of endless functions. So when she espies Abdul at yet another ceremonial banquet, she sees an exotic flower in her black and grey world of duty.
As Victoria's friendship grows with the charming Abdul, the royal household simmers with consternation and then downright terror. It’s all carried along with style in sumptuous period detail by a sturdy cast including Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, Michael Gambon as deeply dull Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and the late, great Tim PIggot-Smith as Victoria’s scandalised private secretary, Henry Ponsonby. There’s also a nice turn by Simon Callow as Puccini, who sings incredibly badly, on the Queen’s visit to a sun-drenched Florence.
Was Karim a servant who just didn’t know his place and brilliantly charms himself into a position of power or was there something more sinister going on? He may have something of Peter Sellers as the charmingly innocent Chauncey Gardiner in Being There about him but in truth, Abdul Karim relationship with Victoria looks like it had more in common with The Beatles and the Maharishi.
Stephen Frears talks to RTÉ Entertainment about Victoria & Abdul
Issues of race and class rear their ugly heads and Frears has joked that he made Victoria & Abdul for Donald Trump but even if a fear of Islam was becoming more pronounced in the 1890s, the director does not labour any analogies or references to modern England.
This is a light, enjoyable account of an episode that once again reveals the silliness of the whole royal façade. And who knew that Queen Victoria set the trend for Britain’s love of curry?
Alan Corr @corralan