Stephen Frear’s new film, Victoria & Abdul serves as the perfect bookend to Judi Dench’s role as Queen Victoria in the later years of her life when the monarch, increasingly lonely and suffocated by her role, finds reprieve in friendships with unlikely characters. In contrast to Mrs. Brown, this chapter of her life is depicted with humor and, more importantly, a theme that is uncannily resonant to our race and class conflicted times.
Based on the book by Shrabani Basu which relied on extensive research into the journals of both the Queen and Abdul, the movie reveals the long-hidden, tender friendship between the scion of Imperialism and a Muslim man from colonized India. In 1887, tall and handsome Abdul Karim arrives to present the Queen with a “mohar” (a Mughal Coin) to commemorate her Golden Jubilee and ends up staying beside her for the next fifteen years as her “munshi” (private teacher) and most trusted confidant. He teaches the Empress of India Urdu and familiarizes her with the Koran and the land she has never visited; they discuss class, race, power, religion, art, cuisine, and they struggle to maintain a bond that while being attacked by everyone including the heir to the point of mutiny; and all of this with humor and eye-welling tenderness.
It can’t be easy sharing the spotlight with Academy Award-winner Judi Dench, but Ali Fazal (Abdul) does more than that. He shines. His comedic timing with his sidekick, the equally adept Adeel Akhtar has Laurel and Hardy magic, and his restraint in scenes where most would go maudlin, is proof of his razor-sharp instincts and budding star-power. We are seeing the work of a a new and consummate artist here, one that we hope will continue as Hollywood comes calling with its capes and explosions.
— Ghalib Dhalla.