Review / ‘Victoria and Abdul’ (M) *** and a half

A DECADE ago, a notebook compiled during the last 15 years of Queen Victoria’s reign again saw the light of day.

Indian journalist Shrabani Basu used it as the foundation for a 2011 book subtitled “The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant”. Lee Hall drew on Basu’s book for the screenplay of director Stephen Frears’ film.

“Victoria and Abdul” is new history, previously suppressed by Victoria’s successor Edward VII (Eddie Izzard playing Prince Albert with vitriolic intensity) and the palace establishment. Its tangled origin leads to a felicitous outcome for filmgoers with predilections for historical drama.

Reflecting an era when tradition was choking the Royal household, Frears’ film may well equally please and dismay Australia’s monarchist and republican supporters. Tradition’s panoply gets a royal serve faithfully staged, hilarious in its profligacies. The political infighting at court is often furious. And above it all stands the dumpy figure of the “Widow of Windsor”, bored, unhappy, devoted to her duties both household and public, no matter how punctilious and meaningless their form.

Boring? Not for an instant. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) came to England by default, charged with delivering a rajah’s gift to the Queen, an Indian coin, small potatoes compared with the Koh-I-Noor diamond that she often wore as a brooch. Abdul’s sole qualification was his physical height. His day job was recording new arrivals at Agra prison.

Much of the film depicts the growth of a close, platonic friendship between the Queen and Abdul, whom she styled her ”munshi” or teacher when she decided to learn “the” Indian language. And this brings us to a great moment in cinema history.

For Judi Dench playing Victoria, the only adequate word is “sublime”. Would any other octogenarian actress allow close-ups faithfully recording every line, wrinkle, blotch and stray hair, and deliver complex dialogue with such vigour and conviction? A peerless portrayal.

At all cinemas


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