Victoria & Abdul (4 stars)

Victoria and Abdul

Judi Dench revisits the titular monarch in Stephen Frears' deft take on a frowned upon friendship

Stephen Frears' latest collaboration with Judi Dench, their third after Mrs Henderson Presents and Philomena, is based on a 'mostly' true story, as the opening titles suggest. It's the actress's second shot at Queen Victoria, following 1997's Mrs Brown, directed by John Madden, which depicted the monarch's friendship with her servant John Brown. Victoria and Abdul is the perfect bookend to that; another story of the imperious Queen finding companionship in the unlikeliest of places.

Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a young man brought from India to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin called a mohur. But when he prostrates himself and kisses her foot, much to the shock of the royal household, she takes a shine to him. Soon, Abdul becomes her 'Munshi', teaching her Urdu while others conspire against him – led by her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), soon to become Edward VII. Even when Abdul reveals he's married, it's not enough to turn the Queen against him.

The veteran Frears, who has plenty of experience in documenting royal affairs after 2006's The Queen, judges the humorous tone with typical expertise. There's a delicious shot early on, for example, with the camera glimpsing the diminutive sovereign seated and barely peeking above the height of a banquet table. We are not amused? Well, here you will be, with the crisp script by Billy Elliot's Lee Hall gently ribbing the absurdity of royal traditions.

Frears leans on the expected stalwarts – ranging from Michael Gambon to Simon Callow – for support, but even this lack of originality does little to dent the film's appeal. Fazal and Dench make an excellent pairing, mining ample emotion in their exchanges. And beneath it all, there lurks a political subtext, touching on issues of Muslim-Christian antipathy that feel acutely relevant in today's climate. It's surprisingly effective.

General release from Fri 15 Sep.

Victoria & Abdul

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • UK / US
  • 1h 51min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Stephen Frears
  • Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon
  • UK release: 15 September 2017

When Queen Victoria (Dench) is introduced to a young man from India, Abdul Karim (Fazal), she is charmed when he prostrates himself and kisses her foot: unlikely cross-cultural friendship and Urdu lessons duly ensue. Fazal and Dench are excellent and there’s a surprisingly effective political subtext.