Victoria and Abdul – Movie – Review

Victoria and Abdul - Poster

An unordinary friendship

Victoria and Abdul – Synopsis

Abdul Karim arrives from India to participate in Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. The young clerk is surprised to find favour with the queen herself. As Victoria questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance that her household and inner circle try to destroy. As their friendship deepens, the queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes, joyfully reclaiming her humanity.

Year: 2017
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama, History
Director:  Stephen Frears
Writer: Lee Hall (Based on Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu)
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Adeel Akhtar, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Tim Pigott-Smith, Simon Callow, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Amani  Zardoe


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Victoria and Abdul – Review

By far the biggest credit to the film is Judi Dench, the ultimate and forever the on-screen Queen Victoria. She is 80% of the reason I chose to watch this film and the rest 20% was because of her ‘Munshi’ (teacher in the Urdu language), an ordinary Muslim man from India who by-chance happened to cross her majesty’s path and won her heart.

Judi Dench - Ali Fazal - Queen Victoria taking lessons in Urdu from her Munshi, Abdul Karim - Victoria and Abdul
Queen Victoria taking lessons in Urdu from her Munshi, Abdul Karim

Now before I dive into the review let me tell you that this isn’t a romance-drama but a simple heart-warming story between two people from completely different worlds who manage to become close friends and provide a comforting companionship to each other.

Once Upon A Time…

The Munshi (aka Abdul Karim played by Ali Fazal), an ordinary low-level public servant with the East Indian Company, during the times of British Colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent, happens to meet the criteria of ‘the tallest man around’ which lands him and a fellow Indian, Mohammad (Adeel Akhtar), to go to the Queen to present her with a royal mohar (a stamp or seal) for the golden jubilee of the Queen.

Ali Fazal - Adeel Akhtar - Abdul Karim and Mohammad finding themselves in Queen Victoria’s abode - Victoria and Abdul
Abdul Karim and Mohammad finding themselves in Queen Victoria’s abode

I think perhaps Abdul’s bright wonder-filled eyes caught the cantankerous Queen’s eye; she seemed to be bored of her mundane royal life and was also lonely after the loss of her loving husband and also one of her closest confidante John Brown.

After exchanging (literally forbidden) glances, the Queen decided to take on the exotic young lad as her footman. Abdul introduced the Queen to a different world with glorious stories and anecdotes from a far-off land and managed to win a place in the Queen’s heart. She, not-too-soon, appointed him as her personal teacher of the language ‘Indian’ (which she later found out was not a language at all and that she was being taught the Urdu language) and of everything Indian.

Considering this is the era of monarchy, there is without a doubt jealously ensuing and drama galore regarding the sudden rise of the ‘uncivilized race’ from a colonized country rising to become one of the closest confidantes of the Queen herself. This man who is merely an errand boy back in his own country suddenly has direct influence over the Queen simply by telling her about mangoes and carpets, the Kohinoor diamond and a different world which is in India. Needless to say, the men and women of the court tried, for nought, to get rid of the Munshi.


Worth Watching…?

I would like to point out that this movie is a reinterpretation of some real-life events and therefore there will be certain inconsistencies and some creative reinterpretations as well. Therefore, story-wise this might not sit well with every person and some people might take offence to the one-dimensional representation of Indian characters and Indian culture or find the portrayal of Queen Victoria as a naïve and out-of-touch with the on-goings in her extended empire to be shallow or any other such critique. But, history itself is someone’s interpretation and it is open to reinterpretations based on facts and data and artefacts.

Photographs of actual Queen Victoria and Abdul (left) and the on-screen duo (right) - Judi Dench - Ali Fazal - Victoria and Abdul
Photographs of actual Queen Victoria and Abdul (left) and the on-screen duo (right)

So, I would personally suggest keeping aside all that conflict and watching this movie for purely the warm portrayal of a very extraordinary friendship while enjoying the touches of humour and drama along the way. However, the cherry of this movie is definitely Judi Dench’s portrayal of Queen Victoria. She is absolutely EPIC in her character portrayal and completely owns the role. She acts with her eyes and brings to life the ‘Cantankerous, greedy, proud and perhaps disagreeably attached to power, but anything but insane’ Queen. Watching Dench is a unique pleasure all in itself.

But Ali Fazal playing Abdul kind of fizzled out in front of the marvellous Judi Dench’s veteran acting which actually tilted the balance of the narration from Victoria and Abdul to simply Victoria at various points of the storyline. Not saying that Ali Fazal was not good, he was very good in fact but Judi Dench is far superior in this game. However, Ali managed to portray the doe-like naivety and pull-off the child-like wonderment with great ease and poise. I had some problems with the way his character was portrayed but I guess it was the director’s interpretation of him (though I feel the director Stephan Frears has taken a slightly biased and tinted point-of-view of India and Abdul as well).

Judi Dench - Ali Fazal - Abdul travelling with Queen Victoria as her teacher and closest confidante - Victoria and Abdul
Abdul travelling with Queen Victoria as her teacher and closest confidante
Final Verdict..?

Overall I really enjoyed the historical movie with splashes of comedy and appropriate touches of drama, emotions and reality. I wasn’t there in the past or amongst Queen Victoria and Abdul during their conversations but I would like to believe that the Queen had taken a fascination to the exotic land of India and of the tales and wisdom that Abdul brought with him.

Someone raises the question in the movie that, what would they (the Queen and Abdul) even have to talk about? I feel that the Queen found a sense of calm and a source of escape in Abdul. In fact, while pondering on their relationship I was reminded of a short story I heard frequently as a child called ‘The Happy Man’s Shirt’ (which after some digging I found is actually an Italian folktale penned down by Italo Calvino). The story goes like:

A King is searching for the happiest man alive to get a hold of his shirt in order to cure his son’s melancholia. The man must be happy through and through but the King has great difficulty finding such a man. Even someone who seems to have everything wants something more or worries about sickness and death. Till the king finds a pauper who seems to be completely satisfied with his life but when the King goes to take his shirt, the man doesn’t wear one and yet he is the happiest man alive.

I feel that even Abdul was similar in this regard, at least in the movie, and that he was simply happy doing his job and setting on new adventures. I feel that it was this aura of Abdul that caught the Queen’s attention and awed her and shed Adbul in mystery in her eyes. Abdul reminded me a lot of that man in the story above. Maybe it is simply my imagination but I adored the film because of a touch of pureness and contentment I felt in Abdul. He could manage to be true to himself even in front of the Queen and not fall victim to greed, fame, glory or power. Though he did come off as slightly dumb at various parts. Even after returning to India, Abdul continued to pay tribute to Queen Victoria’s statue in India and continued spending time in her company. It wasn’t a romance but the love was stronger than the one between lovers, I feel.

The wonderful friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim - Ali Fazal - Judi Dench - Victoria and Abdul
The wonderful friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim

Sorry for the blabbering and coming back to the verdict. If you are not too set-on on historical and few factual differences and are also open to different interpretations of history then I definitely do recommend this movie because the acting is top-notch, the props, sets and costumes are glorious and the storyline is certainly unique. I was quite surprised to hear about Abdul Karim despite being an Indian as I had never heard of this story before I came across this movie.

You can read up a couple of more historical facts in the Vanity Fair article – ‘Victoria and Abdul: The Truth About the Queen’s Controversial Relationship’ or you could check out the article on the Smithsonian – ‘Victoria and Abdul: The Friendship that Scandalized England’.

Nonetheless, Victoria and Abdul is a sweet, heartwarming and slightly dramatic piece of art which is 100% worth a glance in my (biased??) opinion.

Have you seen ‘Victoria and Abdul’? Did you like it? If not, would you like to watch it? Let us know in comments below!

About Poornima

A Korea-phile by nature~ Love everything Asian and originally from India. Fluent in Korean language and knows Chinese language as well. Has Masters in East Asian Studies (with special interest in Korean culture and politics)

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pushpendra dwivedi
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interesting review