PLOT The story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with her Indian servant.
CAST Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard
RATED PG-13 (brief sexual talk and partial nudity)
BOTTOM LINE Fine acting and sharp direction elevate a somewhat muddled story of racism and elitism in 19th century England.
Two stories are at war with each other in the biographical drama “Victoria and Abdul.” One is about a clever young Indian who flatters his way into the court of an aging, lonely monarch. The other is about a well-intentioned servant whose friendship with the Queen is thwarted by British racism and classism.
Both stories can’t be completely true, though there is probably some truth in each. “Victoria and Abdul,” based on the little-known relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a lowborn Indian clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), doesn’t quite know how to handle this complexity. The film’s director, Stephen Frears, is one of cinema’s sharpest observers of people and events (“The Queen,” “My Beautiful Laundrette”), and he seems to know that this story, written by Lee Hall, isn’t clear-cut. At the same time, “Victoria and Abdul” is hampered by the restrictions of a Hollywood period piece: It’s glossy and sentimental, with a feel-good message about racial prejudice.
“Victoria and Abdul” begins as a fun, fish-out-of-water story, as the sunny Abdul and his crotchety friend Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) are whisked from colonial India to serve as ceremonial tray-carriers for the Queen. In mid-ritual, however, Abdul drops to the floor and, to the horror of the staff, kisses her foot. It’s the first in a series of acts that are either sincere expressions of emotion or bold risks to gain favor. In short order, Abdul becomes Victoria’s personal assistant and then her “Munshi” — a Persian word roughly equivalent to teacher. Meanwhile, the Queen’s son, Bertie (an enjoyably irate Eddie Izzard), senses that he’s being undermined by an interloper.
Abdul doesn’t seem completely innocent. He’s forward, presumptuous and clingy with Victoria in a way that would raise anyone’s suspicions. (How many of us would casually pat a monarch’s knee during conversation?)
Though well-acted, often dryly funny and clearly well-researched, “Victoria and Abdul” ends up delivering a somewhat odd message: If he’d been white, Abdul might have flattered himself all the way to the throne.