Victoria & Abdul | Tale of an unlikely friendship goes for cosy laughs

Victoria and Abdul Judi Dench Ali Fazal

History’s most unlikely friendship.

Back in 1997, director John Maden and screenwriter Jeremy Brock fashioned an unexpectedly moving platonic love story out of the relationship between Queen Victoria and her Scottish groom John Brown.

Twenty years on, Stephen Frears and Lee Hall can’t reproduce the same poignant magic with this biopic about the Queen’s unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk, despite following the same trajectory – despised, low-status outsider rouses the Queen from mournful torpor but falls foul of her snooty court – and despite sharing the same star.

That’s not to say Judi Dench, reprising her Oscar-nominated role, isn’t in typically imperial form. When Victoria and Abdul opens in 1887, her Queen is lonely and bored, until handsome 24-year-old Abdul Karim (Bollywood star Ali Fazal) catches her eye at a stuffy banquet. He’s been sent from India to present her with a mohur, a specially minted gold coin, but his twinkly presence inspires the Queen to bestow upon him greater and greater favour.

Victoria and Abdul Judi Dench Ali Fazal

Carry on Vic

Naturally, this doesn’t go down at all well with the snobbish members of her household, nor with her son, Bertie (the future Edward VII), played with prickly peevishness by Eddie Izzard. While Abdul acts as the Queen’s secretary and teaches her Urdu, his enemies conspire to bring him down.

This is a fascinating story. Unfortunately, Frears and Hall, adapting Shrabani Basu’s revelatory book, tackle it in a broadly comic, largely unsubtle manner that doesn’t give the subject its due. Indeed, it’s clear their film’s tone is going to be playful as soon as an introductory title appears announcing it is ‘Based on real events… mostly.’

Yet by going for the cheap laughs – mostly, of course, at the expense of the pompous court – they miss the opportunity to explore the nuances and ambiguities in the Queen and Abdul’s unequal rapport. And it’s this, ultimately, that stops the film from being as touching as its predecessor. Dench, predictably, is superb. A shame, then, that at times she appears to have been cast in Carry on Vic.

Certificate PG. Runtime 112 mins. Director Stephen Frears

Victoria and Abdul opens on 15 September.

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