“Based on real events…mostly.”
Queen Victoria sure knew how to create a frenzy in court. The monarch’s close relationship with Scottish servant John Brown following her husband’s death caused an uproar in the royal household and inspired the 1997 film Mrs. Brown, starring Judi Dench. Turns out, Victoria and Dench were just getting warmed up! Twenty years later, the actress reprises her regal role in Victoria & Abdul, which chronicles another unique, unconventional, and even more scandalous relationship between royal and commoner.
“The Hindus, sir!”
The film begins in 1887, and Great Britain — the most powerful nation in the world at the time — has formally ruled India for almost 30 years. The year also coincides with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, marking her 50-year anniversary on the throne. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a young and (more importantly) tall prison clerk tasked with traveling to England to present the queen with a mohur, a gold coin meant to serve as a token of India’s appreciation. Abdul and his hesitant companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) arrive in Queen Victoria’s court and are given a laundry list of procedures related to the monarch. The most important of those rules is that no one must make eye contact with the queen.
“We are all prisoners, Mr. Karim.”
Given the title of the movie, you’ve probably guessed by now that Abdul can’t help but break that one rule. The bored, lonely queen welcomes the infusion of new blood into her overly-scheduled existence. Victoria peppers Abdul with questions about his personal life and culture — the queen has never set foot in India, despite the fact that she rules it — and he eventually becomes her “Munshi” (or spiritual teacher). Abdul’s new position comes with increased privileges, which severely irks other members of the queen’s inner circle. That includes Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon), and various members of her royal household.
Victoria & Abdul functions as an unofficial prequel to Mrs. Brown, which was directed by John Madden. (Not this guy.) The director here is Stephen Frears, who previously explored the life of an isolated monarch with 2006’s The Queen. Frears excels at capturing both the breathtaking beauty and mind-numbing monotony of Queen Victoria’s life. It’s no wonder the queen — the longest-serving monarch in world history at the time — enjoys having a handsome, kind, and exotic stranger around who brightens the drudgery of her daily routine and obligations.
Dench, who is so commanding on screen that she was cast as James Bond’s boss, has particular mastery over playing Queen Victoria. By this point in her life, the queen describes herself as fat, ill-tempered, and impotent. As a result, Dench’s performance becomes a gradual awakening as Victoria grows more familiar with Abdul’s life and sees her own surroundings through fresh eyes. The movie’s standout moment is an uninterrupted close-up of a clear-eyed Dench as Queen Victoria coolly and forcefully declares she is of sound mind.
She has an easy, pleasing chemistry with Fazal, who is a warm presence throughout. The character of Abdul isn’t fully fleshed out and Fazal gives off a saintly quality in his performance. Thankfully, the screenplay by Lee Hall — based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu — helps assure us that Abdul was a fallible human too. Perhaps part of the reason there isn’t more to Abdul’s character is because Victoria’s family and closest associates did their best to erase his existence from history.
And that’s actually one place where Victoria & Abdul comes up a bit short. The close relationship between the queen and the clerk obviously raises eyebrows, and it’s easy to understand why it’s frowned upon. But other than vague references to a Muslim revolt and the optics of having a dark-skinned foreigner so close to the queen, the film doesn’t fully convey why her closest confidants were so violently opposed to Abdul’s presence. As a result, good actors like Izzard and Gambon are reduced to playing cartoon villains, which is amusing but not the best use of their talent.
Still, that’s not nearly enough to dampen a touching take on a unique friendship.
Victoria & Abdul is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 32 mbps. The film opens with a handful of sequences in India, which provide a warm counterpoint to the generally chilly palette and muted colors we get during scenes in England and Scotland. But no matter where the action is taking place, there is extraordinary fine detail on display, courtesy of the film’s lavish sets and costumes. Although colors might be somewhat muted, there are some deep, inky black levels here courtesy of Queen Victoria’s wardrobe. For a film that largely takes place in extravagant palaces and other parts of upper crust British society, Victoria & Abdul offers a surprisingly varied visual experience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is dialogue-driven and surround activity is extremely understated. During a noisy early scene in the prison where Abdul works, the majority of the hustle and bustle is confined to the front speakers. In fact, the only scene where the track truly flexes its muscles and ventures into the rear speakers in a meaningful way comes courtesy of a rainy, mountainside tea outing arranged by the queen. Otherwise, this is an immaculately clean, well-balanced presentation.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Judi & Ali: (4:55) Charming stars Judi Dench and Ali Fazal — along with other cast and crew members — discuss the real-life friendship that inspired the movie. They also draw parallels to their own lives: Dench is acting royalty to Fazal, who had never visited London prior to working on this project.
The Look of Victoria & Abdul: (6:46) The movie’s exquisite production and costume design deservedly take center stage here. Parts of Victoria & Abdul were filmed in Agra, India and Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s real-life royal residence in the U.K. Consolata Boyle also takes us behind-the-scenes on her extravagant and transportive costumes. (Be sure to listen to our interview with Boyle.)
On the surface, Victoria & Abdul looks like another stuffy period drama about out-of-touch royals. (And I suppose that’s what it is to some extent.)
However, the reason this film stands out — other than the fine chemistry between the leads — is because it tells the sort of love story we don’t often see on screen; one that is based on friendship and maternal affection instead of romantic feelings.