'Based on true events.....mostly' is the first thing we see on screen in Victoria and Abdul and this sets out the stall early for this story of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her unlikely friendship with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Much artistic licence is taken in the films early movements as it tries to work out what sort of film it wants to be, relying heavily on comedic lines about 'incidents with elephants' before settling down into a relationship drama around this most unlikely friendship.
Plucked from India to present a commemorative coin to the designated Empress of India (largely due to his height) Abdul finds himself thrust into English high society and inclement weather. After catching the sovereign's eye he is requested/told that he will be remaining to serve as a footman and begins to build a relationship and friendship with Victoria that shakes the structures of 'the Royal House' to its core. As time passes the relationship grows and blooms into Abdul becoming a trusted ear and a spiritual advisor.
Truly this film belongs to Judi Dench. She is wonderfully cantankerous in the early scenes of the movie. Her disdain for her enforced role as monarch is at times palpable and lingering shots staring deep into her eyes tell the story for themselves. When Abdul enters her life things begin to change. A thaw besets her and a new interest and wonder in the world begin to take hold of her. Groans of disdain morphing into peals of laughter and life is the journey that she finds herself on. Urdu lessons and great wonder at Abdul's stories from India bring her much joy and an ability to see beyond her confined structures.
This does not go unnoticed by those around her, making up her Royal household, who gathering at doors listening in to conversations, fearing that their own positions of power and influence are under threat from this outsider. Key among this great ensemble is Eddie Izzard as Victoria's son Bertie who is utterly bewildered and frustrated by his mother's desire to engage with 'the Hindu' (even though Abdul is a Muslim). Frustrations boil over into an attempt to remove his mother from power altogether with delusion being cited as the reason.
At the heart of Abdul and Victoria is a story of servants. One at the top of the chain and one at the bottom, both wrestling with what it means to serve. Abdul declares that, 'they are here for the good of others'.
Victoria and Abdul asks the viewer questions about who we are serving and also how we are serving them. These are duly answered in the development of a true friendship that trusts and loves unconditionally, showing that love is the key to servitude with Abdul wisely declaring 'Love is the whole, we are only pieces'.
Victoria and Abdul is by no means a perfect film. It is a little cheesy and twee at times but equally it holds a charm and an endearing quality that cannot be denied. This cross cultural tale of friendship is one that still rings true, an openness and a willingness to befriend those others see as a threat may be more enlightening and valuable to us than we realise.
Victoria and Abdul is in cinemas from 15th September