Victoria and Abdul

Judi Dench reprises her role as Queen Victoria in this ‘mostly’ (as it says in the beginning titles) true story of her relationship with an Indian servant to whom she became attached in her great old age.

The story is strikingly similar to the one told in Her Majesty Mrs Brown, in which Billy Connolly played the Scottish gillie, John Brown.  I’d heard of him before that movie but hadn’t previously heard of Abdul Karim, so I suspected that ‘mostly’ from the credits was actually code for ‘we made up this new version of the Queen-falls-for-cheeky-exotic-servant story to cash in on the success of the first one.’

That’ll teach me to be such a cynic.  Furious post-movie googling revealed it was TRUE that Victoria campaigned against the racism of her court and her household when they took umbrage at this uppity Indian swanning about the place enjoying the Queen’s favour.  Who knew?

All such historical re-imaginings must inevitably take liberties with history.  But some liberties are excusable, such as when you recreate a conversation as it might have happened based on what you know of the characters.  Others aren’t so excusable; such as the outrageous claim in the Hollywood movie U-571 that it was American rather than British sailors who captured the Enigma machine from a German U-boat in WWII. 

Or when filmmakers engage in ethical whitewashing.  This is what I think is happening here with the depiction of Karim, who was by all historical accounts boastful and arrogant and as class-conscious as any English aristocrat, at one stage refusing to share his quarters with other Indian servants! 

Nevertheless there is good entertainment here in the depiction of the elaborate formalities of Victorian court life – almost comical to our modern eyes – and lots of fun to be had at the expense of stuffy Buckingham House officials.

But this theme runs out of steam after a while and the second half of the film devolves into a series of sentimental encounters between Victoria and Abdul in which he comforts the old Queen with the mystical wisdom of the east.  Maybe he did that in real life.  Or maybe it was just Victoria’s well-documented liking for the company of handsome younger men. 

The film is at its best depicting the indignities of old age that afflict even the great Queen of England and Empress of India: an elderly lady so infirm that she has to be lifted into a sitting position from her bed in the morning, nods off at formal banquets in front of visiting royalty and has to report her rare successful bowel movements to her doctor. 

One final quibble.  At one stage Victoria makes a little speech to her court in which she contrasts the decrepitude of her body with the soundness of her mind.   But would she have used terms like ‘prolapsed uterus’ and ‘morbidly obese’?  Just askin’.   

Otherwise, full credit to the great Judi Dench for her honest and moving performance, which carries this movie.

This review was first published on Facebook in September 2017