Stephen Frears likes to study significant characters with stories to tell – but most of the time, we adopt the perspective of an outside source. Whether it be that of the journalist in Philomena and The Program, or the beleaguered other half of Florence Foster Jenkins – his films are proof that sometimes the very best to understand somebody is through somebody else. It’s a technique he’s taken on again in Victoria and Abdul, peering into the remarkable livelihood of the eponymous Monarch, through the eyes of an Indian guest.
Ali Fazal plays Abdul Karim, a clerk who is handpicked, alongside his compatriot Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to fly to London to present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a gift during one of her illustrious banquets. Though only initially intended to stay a short period of time – and under strict instructions to not attempt any form of dialogue with Her Majesty, he has little choice but to, for she takes a liking to her new guest, enamoured by his culture. Though around Victoria are not quite so impressed with this fledging friendship however, fearing that having a Muslim man become so close to the Queen could be damaging to her reputation – but she’s not exactly someone you can tell what to do.
Based entirely on real events – the memoirs of Abdul, in fact – this narrative has been given the Stephen Frears treatment, as an unmistakably British endeavour that maintains a light, comedic edge. He ridicules the upper class society of the time in an affectionate manner, helped along by the performance of the ever-impressive Eddie Izzard. But the true star here is Dench, who brings a certain warmth and vulnerability to the role, and yet at the same time ensures the viewer always respects her authority, aware of her volatile demeanour and significant power. It naturally helps that the actress has played this role before, as you feel this is a performance that comes so effortlessly to her. Then again, she always gives off that impression.
Fazal is good too, though needless to say the character of Abdul is somewhat underwritten, as somehow, in spite of Victoria’s curiosity, we feel like we know so little about him. Yet the message is an important, and pertinent one, of not judging someone by their religion, or the colour of their skin – but the person within. It’s just a shame in this instance the film feels so happy to settle on being merely a genial, inoffensive British drama, where you wish it would just go a little deeper.