VICTORIA & ABDUL
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Lee Hall, based on the eponymous book by Shrabani Basu.
Runtime: 112 mins.
Australian release date: 14 September 2017
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 5 September 2017.
Queen Victoria’s reign lasted 63 years and she was a widow for over 40 of them, so little wonder she had the odd dalliance - think John Brown (see John Madden’s Mrs. Brown) and now Abdul Karim in Victoria & Abdul. Not to suggest any impropriety, on the contrary these flirtations were quite innocent, but she was human after all and it was a long time to be alone even if she was constantly surrounded by her courtiers. Her Majesty fell into a deep depression after the death of Prince Albert, whom she mourned deeply (thus earning herself the nickname ‘the widow of Windsor’), and with whom she had a loving and deep affiliation. The subsequent exposés of her ‘relationships’ reveal the depth of her loneliness and one can only wonder if the two that have come to light so far will open the door for others to be unearthed. There could be more sequels than a Marvel franchise!
Stephen Frear’s Victoria & Abdul is set during the lead up to the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Queen Victoria was not only the leader of the British Empire but, in 1876, had also taken the title Empress of India. A young Indian clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is sent from India with a reluctant companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to present the Queen (Judi Dench) a ceremonial coin. The men are instructed by the members of the royal household in matters of protocol, the main rule being never to look directly at Her Majesty but the excited Abdul breaks this rule and the Queen is mesmerized. Abdul, in his exotic garb, stands out from the crowd of pasty Englishmen in the Court and Her Highness begins to regularly seek his company. As the unlikely friendship between the couple grows, the Queen begins to make curious demands, including the request for a mango from India - no small demand considering it had to be dispatched by sea - and for books on the Urdu language. The Court, led by the Queen’s Private Secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), is predictably disapproving and treats the Indians with contempt; at one stage a reference is made that Abdul is a ‘brown’ Mr. Brown!
Judi Dench is perfect, having played this role before in Mrs. Brown. Here, Queen Victoria is in the later years of her rule and Dench portrays her frustration and boredom as she hosts yet another lavish dinner for unknown dignitaries from around the world; Dame Judy’s face says it all. It is only during the scenes with Abdul that she perks up and takes notice of the world around her. Her defiance in breaking with protocol shows how feisty she really was and throws light on just how she was able to sit on the throne for so many years without going mad.
Victoria & Albert is a sumptuous viewing experience, if a little subdued. It won’t set your heart racing and Lee Hall’s script feels overly familiar, but if you’re looking for glorious locations plus beautiful production and costume design (by the same team that worked with Frears on Philomena and The Queen), then you won’t be disappointed.