Hollywood@Home: Victoria & Abdul

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal star in the royal comedy, “Victoria & Abdul.”

It’s been suggested that “Victoria & Abdul” takes great liberties with the real-life story of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Muslim companion and teacher, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Karim caught the eye of the British monarch in June of 1887. She befriended the former prison clerk and later declared him her “Munshi” or teacher. Victoria’s family and staff were appalled and took every opportunity to discredit Karim. Victoria mostly tossed it off as racial prejudice and asked Karim to teach her how to read and write Urdu, his native tongue. Karim persevered and remained near Victoria until her death in 1901.

It should be noted that Stephen Frears’ film about the relationship between the queen and her Munshi is a comedy, based on true events. I don’t think it’s necessarily trying to rewrite history. It’s well-established that Victoria presided over the British Raj that extensively drained India of its resources and oppressed its people. She was declared Empress of India in 1876 and there’s no sign she was a great humanitarian. Frears’ film presents the monarch as cantankerous, endearing and perhaps a bit touched. It might be an overreach to declare “Victoria & Abdul” a spot-on docudrama.

Dench, of course, played Victoria in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown” to great effect, earning her an Oscar nomination. She nails it once again, bringing both grace and humor to the role. Dench’s skill as an actress just can’t be overstated and she deserves any recognition she’s likely to get during the 2017 awards season.

Fazal is in a no-win situation playing Abdul Karim. The submissiveness of his character might make him appear racially inferior. But, I would argue that despite the boot-kissing, Karim was actually quite successful in getting Victoria interested in the Islamic faith. He influenced the queen and educated her, so does that make him her flunky? I would argue that Victoria’s family and staff were equally submissive in their dealings with the queen. Victoria was a monarch who got her way.

The bottom line is that Frears, screenwriter Lee Hall and the talented cast and crew have created an amusing and even poignant comedy-drama. It’s not chapter-and-verse what happened during Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. But, as entertainment, it suffices quite nicely. Grade: B

Judi Dench plays a feisty monarch in “Victoria & Abdul.”