Detailing a little-known chapter in the history of the British monarchy, Stephen Frears' crowd-pleasing period piece "Victoria & Abdul" follows the unexpected friendship that blossomed between the aging Queen Victoria and a young Indian manservant.
Working as a lowly clerk at a prison in Agra, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is plucked from obscurity and tasked with traveling 5000 miles to present Her Majesty (Judi Dench) with a ceremonial coin as a token of his country's esteem. The handsome young man catches the Queen's eye during the formal proceedings, and she finds herself intrigued enough to request that his stay be extended.
As Victoria enlists Abdul as her personal servant, their conversations stir an interest in Indian culture, and she promotes him to be her munshi (teacher), requesting that he tutor her in Urdu and the Koran. Gradually Abdul rises through the ranks, raising eyebrows in the aristocracy, baffling her staff, and infuriating her son Edward (Eddie Izzard).
Having previously played Victoria two decades ago in John Madden's "Mrs. Brown," Dench delivers a wonderful performance as a much wearier, lonelier version of the character. But while there's no doubt Victoria enjoys her new companion and values his friendship, there's no sense of how Abdul feels about anything that's happening to him. Beyond remarking early on that "life is an adventure!," we get precious little insight into who Abdul is as an individual. A popular star in Bollywood, Fazal has a charming presence, but that lack of interiority is a major flaw in a character who accounts for half the film's title.
"Victoria & Abdul" is a handsomely mounted production; amusing and occasionally touching. But it's hard not to think that the same story told from Karim's point of view had the potential to be something much more interesting.