By Kam Williams
In 1887, 24-year-old Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was sent from India to England to represent India by presenting Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a gold coin that commemorated her Golden Jubilee year as the Queen. When he presented the coin at a banquet at Windsor Castle, he managed to catch the attention of the lonely monarch.
In fact, she was so taken with Karim that she made him her companion and promoted him to be her “munshi,” Urdu for teacher. Not surprisingly, this development didn’t sit well with members of the royal court, especially her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard). The crown prince was suspicious of the interloper’s intentions and was concerned about how things looked with his widowed mum having a handsome young Muslim at her side.
However, Victoria brushed aside any objections as racial prejudice, and kept Abdul on as her trusted confidant until she passed away in 1901. Based on Shrabani Basu’s bestseller of the same name, Victoria and Abdul describes the unlikely friendship that developed between her majesty and her devoted subject. Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen and The Grifters), this “mostly true” tale portrays the relationship as a dramatic comedy whose comedic elements outweigh its dramatic moments.
Dame Judi Dench, who won an Academy award for playing Queen Elizabeth, is again at her best here as an imperious, but vulnerable, Queen. She plays an empathetic visionary adrift in a sea of intolerance that is swarming with British bigots who are too blinded by hate to begin to understand a mild-mannered foreigner whose customs are different than theirs.
The picture’s transparent message about brotherhood is delivered in too heavy-handed a fashion to take seriously. Nevertheless, the movie’s lighter moments generate enough laughs to make the movie worth seeing.
Very Good (**½ stars). Rated PG-13 for profanity and mature themes. In English, Hindi, and Urdu with subtitles. Running time: 111 minutes. Production Studio: BBC Films/Working Title Films/Perfect World Pictures. Distributor: Focus Features.