Director Stephen Frears, despite have a reputation for being a bit crotchety with us journos, and at times rightly so if you heard some of the questions he’s asked, has made some wonderfully funny films with his most recent being the Meryl Streep starrer ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ which was a timely reminder of just how brilliant a light comedy actor Hugh Grant is and was shamefully overlooked for an Oscar nomination last year. Frears is back with another unknown story of a well known figure namely Queen Victoria played by that other great institution Judi Dench.
After the death of her husband years ago Queen Victoria is desperately lonely despite being surrounded by a palace full of courtiers and servants and bored with them all. Bertie, her son and all too desperate heir to the throne, she regards as an idiot and as played by an ever scowling Eddie Izzard here is one of many decent turns in the film. It’s only when a servant called Abdul, who is sent from his home in India where he works as a clerk in a prison to London to present Victoria with a coin at a formal dinner, that she begins to find a new lease of life. Joined by his friend Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar ) who hates the cold of England and is eager to get back home they are instructed on how to present the coin to Victoria with strict instructions not to look her in the eye. Like anyone told not to do something he does the exact opposite and Victoria takes a shine to him and so begins a friendship where he is elevated from a position of servant to a courtier with his own staff and cottage in the palace grounds much to the outrage of Bertie, Victoria’s personal doctor and the head of the household who conspire to rid the house of ‘The Hindu’s’ as they regularly refer to him and Mohammed.
Based on a true story that only recently came to light after the discovery of the real life diaries of Abdul this is an intriguing story of an odd friendship between a woman who by her own admission was desperately lonely after the death of her beloved husband. It’s not the only time she has taken a shine to a servant as seen in the 1997 film Mrs Brown where Judi Dench also plays Victoria to Billy Connolly’s John Brown who having also passed away she also pines after. Abdul takes their place and she has him teach her Urdu and broadens her knowledge of India where she is Empress yet has never visited and knows very little.
Despite Abdul and Mohammed being referred to as ‘The Hindu’s’ they are revealed to be Muslim (surely Mohammed’s name was enough of a clue) and whereas the film could easily have veered into dangerously dodgy area there’s are scenes with Burka wearing women which have an impending sense of dread that something un-PC might happen though Frears is far too intelligent to let that happen. It’s a credit to Ali Fazal as Abdul that he comes over as endearingly loyal and wholly committed to Victoria regardless of what the court throw at him and his final treatment at their hands is despicable if not inevitable as his position was only ever going to be assured whilst Victoria was alive.
Slightly overlong this is a typically well made Stephen Frears film with Judi Dench as good as you might expect with Ali Fazal, whose pedigree is in Bollywood films though he did appear in Fast & Furious 7, matching her performance and both are given able support by Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Adeel Akhtar and Tim Piggot Smith in what was to be one of his last film roles.
Here’s the trailer…….