A gentle story about an unusual friendship, “Victoria & Abdul” doesn’t so much explode onto the screen as it does embrace it.
I admire the director’s up-front admittance that the film is “based on a true story … mostly.” That means we should expect some poetic license, if you will.
The Queen of England, now in her 80s, is tired of the trappings of royalty. Despite having nine children, she is lonely, missing her beloved Albert, who died in 1861, every day.
Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and she also was Empress of India.This story begins in 1887, the year she observed 50 years of rule.
It is part of the celebration that involves here with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal, “Furious 7”) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, “The Big Sick”) who present the queen with an honorary coin. The queen is quite taken with Abdul, and she begins to speak to him occasionally.
Eventually, the two strike up a friendship that is awkward at first, then becomes more intimate when Abdul becomes Victoria’s “munshi” — a sort of adviser who teaches her Urda and the Koran.
Her royal staff and her son Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) are fit to be tied — Bertie, in particular, is jealous of the close relationship his mother has with Abdul. What a scandal Victoria has set in motion! It sets tongues wagging wherever she and Abdul appear together.
Judi Dench has another marvelous role as Queen Victoria (she also portrayed Her Majesty in “Mrs. Brown” in a not-dissimilar tale of her life after Albert’s death). She transitions easily from a woman who falls asleep during dinner to a perky friend eager to learn more about her new friend, who was a clerk in his home town in India.
And talk about chemistry. She has just that with Fazal, whose character, with simple eye contact and a willingness to break the rules to show respect, makes a connection with the queen.
Beautiful moments between the friends include a brief dance sequence and another in which Abdul recites a beautiful poem by Rumi that will be familiar to many viewers.
Stephen Frears also directed the wonderful “Philomena” and “Florence Foster Jenkins,” both of which are based-on-true-life stories. As he does in those two films (“Philomena,” not so incidentally, also stars Dench), he takes a gentle, loving approach to his central characters.
Although the themes of prejudice and war are present in the screenplay, they are peripheral to the character development at its center. Frears wants to introduce you to two new friends … and you’ll be sure to welcome them.