And so it comes full circle. In 1997, Judi Dench—to that point best known for her work on British stage and television, and for her first turn as Bond’s “M” in GoldenEye—vaulted into cinema royalty (so to speak) for her performance as Queen Victoria in the director John Madden’s Mrs. Brown. The film concerned the queen’s close relationship with a common-born Scotsman named John Brown, a relationship that was regarded with concern and envy by her court and family.
Twenty years and seven Oscar nominations later—her first was for Mrs. Brown, her sole win for Madden’s later Shakespeare in Love—Dench again plays Victoria (though somewhat older) in Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul. The film concerns the queen’s close relationship with a common-born Indian Muslim man named Abdul Karim, a relationship that was regarded with concern and envy by her court and family.
Plus ça change…
It is worth noting that, despite some liberties taken, both films are based on real-life events. Victoria, who lost her beloved husband, Prince Albert, 24 years into her 64-year reign, never remarried, and both Brown and, subsequently, Karim served as important servant-companions in her later years.
That is, however, more or less where the resemblances between the two films end. Despite strong performances by Dench and Billy Connolly (as Brown), Mrs. Brown was a slow and somewhat awkward period drama. Victoria & Abdul, by contrast, is an elegant yet sprightly romp—albeit one that has been justifiably criticized for historical revisionism regarding the relationship between Britain and the Raj, as well as for the relatively two-dimensional portrait of Karim.
The story begins in 1887, with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of her ascension to the throne. In her honor, a ceremonial coin is minted in India, which has been under formal British rule for nearly three decades. Two Indian clerks are chosen to present the coin by virtue of their height: Karim (played by Ali Fazal), who is in fact tall, and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who is not, and was instead a last-minute fill-in.
Karim recedes a bit in the latter half of the film, becoming less a character than a metaphor for tolerance.
Arriving in England, the two are instructed in the niceties of the Court (“The key to good service is standing still and moving backwards”), and solid comic mileage is gotten out of the elaborate etiquette and pantomime of a state dinner. Karim is entranced; Mohammed, not so much. (“The place is completely barbaric,” he complains, citing—in a clever inversion—the English consumption of food featuring pig’s blood and sheep’s brains.)
Despite instructions that he make no eye contact with the queen, Karim does exactly that at the first opportunity. She returns his gaze and, later, noting his height and looks, decides to bring him gradually into her service. She asks him to teach her Urdu and to describe the taste of a mango. Soon she has declared him her “Munshi,” or teacher, awarded him Mohammed as a servant, and had his burqa-wearing wife and mother-in-law brought to England.
Her family and ministers take this all about as poorly as one would expect: One derides her “Munshi mania”; another declares Karim “the brown John Brown.” (As a group, her court is played by an all-star lineup of Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Simon Callow, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, and Paul Higgins—whose brogue is unmistakable to any fan of his role as Jamie in The Thick of It and In the Loop.)
The contemporary political resonances of an Anglophone head of state striking up a deep friendship with a Muslim—even one who is essentially a servant—are obvious and unlikely to be accidental. And indeed, Karim recedes a bit in the latter half of the film, becoming less a flesh-and-blood character than a metaphor for tolerance. Moreover, however appealing this abstract ideal may be, the portrayal of Victoria as a progressive anti-racist is an absurd whitewashing of the colonial era and the British Raj.
Fazal makes the most of his opportunities as Karim, and the rest of the cast fulfill their straightforward plot functions ably. But like planets orbiting a celestial body, all revolve around a customarily gravitational performance by the great Dame Dench. It is instructive to watch Mrs. Brown and Victoria & Abdul side by side. As magnetic as Dench is in the former, by the latter she has come fully into her powers. The moment when Victoria first notices Karim’s gaze is typical: With scarcely a gesture or change of expression, she instantly commands the scene. Victoria & Abdul is worth seeing for Dench’s magisterial performance and for Frears’s light but sure directorial touch. Just don’t mistake it for actual history.