Victoria & Abdul ***

It’s a bit scattered in terms of tone, but overall the touching, symbiotic friendship on display here is a welcome sight to see. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

It was an unlikely relationship at an odd time in a forbidden place. Usually Hollywood makes a love story of such a construct, and to be sure, "Victoria & Abdul" contains love, just not of the sexual kind. Instead, its titular figures share a "Harold & Maude" type of friendship that feels both organic and endearing. As a result, director Stephen Frears' ("Philomena") film is a heartwarming success, a moving story of fulfillment manifesting in the most unlikely of places.

By the late 1800s, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) of England was near the end of her reign and, to put it simply, she was over it. Her beloved husband Albert died more than 30 years earlier, and subsequently her life became a lonely existence of meetings, state dinners, and mindless ceremony. She's bored at the repetitiveness and ready to die. That is, until she meets Abdul (Ali Fazal).

An Indian servant in England to present her highness with a noble coin, Abdul dares to make eye contact with the queen, catches her fancy, and a symbiotic relationship ensues. She enjoys his company, frankness, and ability to open her mind to new and different things. He tells her about India, teaches her Urdu, gives her a taste of Indian food and provides her with a sense of purpose. She grants him privileges, such as bringing his family to live in royal housing and being one of her most trusted confidantes. This is all to the dismay of the rest of the royal family, her advisors and staff, all of whom view Abdul as an intruder they need to get rid of. Ironically, this makes Victoria and Abdul's bond even stronger.

In fairness, Victoria’s people have reason to be suspicious. At this time England has recently taken over India, and Muslim soldiers are attacking British forces in India as a response. Abdul is Muslim and comes from meager means, so him doing and saying whatever is necessary to live a “royal” lifestyle is feasible. Her family and staff, however, fear Abdul wants to embarrass Her Majesty. It’s an interesting social dynamic that Frears deftly incorporates, and it makes the movie multi-dimensional and dramatically stronger.

Lee Hall's screenplay is based on the book by Shrabani Basu, who discovered Victoria and Abdul’s friendship during a 2003 visit to the former queen’s summer home. It had largely been eradicated from history prior to then, and given that only select moments of their relationship are documented we must surmise that there’s a fair amount of artistic license in play here. That’s okay: As long as the spirit of their connection is appropriately captured a few cinematic embellishments to make the movie more enjoyable are welcome.

The only real flaw in “Victoria & Abdul” is its frequently shifting tone: It goes from earnest friendship to lighthearted moments to serious drama seemingly on a whim, and this lack of narrative balance is unsettling. Thankfully by the end it’s the relationship between Victoria and Abdul that you remember most, which is how it should be.

Did you know?
Dench was Oscar-nominated for playing Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown" (1997), about Victoria's post-Albert bond with her Scottish servant, John Brown.

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