December 30, 2017
Box Office $22.2 million;
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some thematic elements and language.
Stars Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams.
Thrown into the mix of a glut of recent programming centered on British royalty comes this delightful tale of a long-forgotten chapter from the later years of Queen Victoria.
The film relates the curious friendship Victoria (Judi Dench) struck with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Muslim prison clerk from India who by happenstance is chosen to represent his country during a ceremony to honor the queen in 1887.
Bored with her daily routine and sycophantic court, Victoria finds herself intrigued by Abdul’s fresh-faced optimism and lack of airs, and soon has him teaching her about Indian culture and philosophies, much to the chagrin of the rest of the royal household, most notably her son (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII.
The clash of cultures presents the primary source of the film’s humor, particularly from a countryman and travel companion of Abdul who observes how primitive and barbaric the modern ways of London can be compared with their own customs.
Victoria & Abdul was directed by Stephen Frears, who was previously responsible for The Queen, a story about Elizabeth II, Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter and the only British monarch who served longer.
The Queen’s writer, Peter Morgan, went on to develop Netflix’s “The Crown,” a TV show about Elizabeth’s early years that, like this film, relates ways the palace staff seeks to isolate the monarch in a ball of tradition, much to their chagrin.
Judi Dench had previously played Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, and this film has been noted as something of an unofficial sequel to that one, even though Dench is the only one to reprise any of the roles (not to mention the different studios responsible for distributing each, with Disney’s Miramax arm responsible for the earlier picture, and Universal’s Focus Features handling the newer one).
The film, in depicting the declining years of Victoria, also provides an interesting contrast to PBS’s current “Victoria” series, which, like “The Crown,” deals with its subject queen’s early reign. That show is keen on portraying Victoria’s willingness to push back against her handlers, which is still on display in a film set 50 years later.
Certainly, though, taking in all the material as unofficial companion pieces to each other adds some poignancy to this film’s more solemn moments of Victoria reflecting on all the loved ones — including her husband, Albert, and the aforementioned John Brown — passing on while her reign never seems to end.
The Blu-ray includes a couple of short featurettes about the production — one focusing on the cast and the other on the production design and filming locations. As could be expected, Dench’s previous involvement with the role and such productions is the source of some intriguing insights.