By Joe Farkus, NDG Contributing Writer
Set at the turn of the 20th century and adorned with all the pomp and ceremony one would expect with a period piece set in Victorian England, Victoria & Abdul proves to be a delightful, heartfelt, and charming film. It tells the story of two young Indian men – Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) – who are chosen to become servants to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in the 1890’s.
Abdul charms his way into a much closer role advising the Queen and becoming her most intimate confidant, confounding the aristocratic circle surrounding her (including her own royal family). Abdul’s relationship with the Queen sets the stage for conflicts throughout the film regarding race, class, and culture. These conflicts are consistently presented as the result of the hostility the white English upper class has for racial minorities, especially those of lower economic status.
Dench authentically portrays a sick and dying Queen whose passion for life is reignited by her friendship with Abdul. Her ability to effectively demonstrate both Queen Victoria’s often austere demeanor as well as rare glimpses of kindness and compassion gives the film a central performance with enormous credibility.
Another surprising highlight of the film was Adeel Akhtar’s performance of Abdul’s fellow servant Mohammed, who manages to fill the film’s first half with blow-by-blow comic relief and well-placed humor. Ali Fazal as Abdul, however, is completely unremarkable and flat, portraying the character as a saintly figure whose morality and wisdom is beyond question. Fortunately, the rest of the cast (including the likes of Eddie Izzard and the BAFTA award-winning Michael Gambon) counterbalance the lackluster performance effectively.
All in all, the film provides an easy-viewing experience that hits you with humor and heart-warming moments at the beginning and leaves you with sadness and moments of heartbreak right at the end. The elaborate sets and majestic scenes of India and the English countryside serve as lush backdrops to a story that, up until recently, had never been told. If this film accomplishes anything, it at least proves that it’s a good thing that has changed.
Victoria & Abdul opens in select theaters nationwide Friday, Sept. 29.