It’s 1887 and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has completely lost her zest for life. A widow for something like thirty years (and missing the attention of her much-loved Ghillie, the late Mr Brown,) she suffers silently through a daily onslaught of official functions, signing papers and attending dinners – all under the baleful gaze of a whole retinue of servants who feed her, dress her and even keep watch on the Royal bowel movements. And then along comes Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome young servant despatched from his hometown of Agra in India in order to present the Queen with a rather unprepossessing commemorative coin. In so doing, he breaks with protocol and actually dares to look her in the eye. Something clicks between them. Pretty soon, Abdul has been appointed as her personal servant and, not long after that, as her ‘Munshi’ or teacher, when she decides she’d like to learn to speak Urdu.
Predictably, the appointment causes much consternation in the Royal Household, not least to Edward, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), who feels that a servant – and a Muslim one, to boot – does not make a suitable companion for his mother. Despite this, when Victoria learns that Abdul is a married man, she insists that he send for his wife and daughter immediately and has the family installed in their own cottage on the palace grounds.
This is an interesting true life story in which Dame Judi does her usual seemingly effortless magic, while director Stephen Frears takes the opportunity to nail the jealousy, spite and hypocrisy that always simmers under the polite surface of the aristocracy. Karim, however, remains something of an enigma. Was he a genuinely devoted servant or, like so many others in the Royal household, simply looking to exploit the situation to his own ends? We’re never really sure – and Victoria doesn’t seem to care. Whatever, it’s clear the real exploitation was visited upon the colonies, so who could blame Karim for trying to turn the tables to his own advantage?
Whatever the truth of the situation, he was clearly shabbily treated by Edward and by the supercilious Lord Henry Ponsonby (a lovely swan song from the late Tim Pigott-Smith). There’s also an appealing turn from Adeel Akhtar as Karim’s politically-astute friend, Mohammed, who, shorter and less handsome than his celebrated companion, is doomed to be forever in his shadow. This is an assured little film, beautifully performed by a stellar cast and, while the world doesn’t exactly move for me (a bit like the Royal bowels, I suppose), it’s nonetheless well worth watching, if only to fill me in on a little bit of history I wasn’t previously aware of.