Victoria & Abdul is not the first movie to show the Queen of England cavorting with the help. And you don't have to be a cynic to read Stephen Frears' new film as a brazen attempt to piggyback on the runaway success of 1997's Mrs. Brown. In which, you may recall, the newly widowed monarch (played, as is only right and proper, by Judi Dench) found all kinds of implied solace in the company of a lowly Scottish servant (Billy Connolly) who raised every hackle on the royal entourage by addressing Her Majesty as "woman," then moving right along to more serious no-nos that got him fired and worse.
Victoria & Abdul treads a similar plot path, but its tone is more irreverent and less ingratiating, though the film doesn't lack for heart either. Thirty years on from the death of her beloved consort Prince Albert, Victoria has all but expired herself. She has to be canted out of bed by a small army of staff. She's tired of politics, exhausted by endless ceremony, and disappointed in her nine children, especially the heir apparent Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard along a hair line between grumpy and stupid. She still loves to eat, but nods off reliably between state banquet courses, refusing to make small talk with official guests. But when a humble young Indian man named Abdul Karim (played close-to-the-vest by Indian actor Ali Fazal) appears bearing gifts for her Golden Jubilee, the Queen's rheumy blue eyes lock with his soulful brown ones.
To the manifest horror of the royal entourage, played out in scenic castles lavishly gussied up in red and gold brocade and only the best crystalware, the two become instant besties. All zest recovered, Victoria appoints "the Hindu," as her staff disparagingly calls him, as her spiritual guide and teacher. Never mind that he's actually a Muslim, which will set the cat among the diplomatic pigeons. They all look the same to colonial oppressors, and though one of Her Majesty's many titles is Empress of India, she's never set foot on the Indian subcontinent. Victoria has overstepped not just class but racial-colonial lines too, so the political stakes are sky high.
Based on diaries kept both by the Queen and Abdul (whose journal was discovered in 1910) — and on a 2010 book by Shrabani Basu — Victoria & Abdul declares in a coy prefatory intertitle that the story it tells is "almost" drawn from real life events. No problem: Frears is at his most appealing in mischief mode in films like The Snapper, The Grifters, and, of course, The Queen, in which he sent up British royalty while reserving a fond respect for the monarch herself. Here, ably abetted by screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott), he draws on the broadly knockabout Carry On British classic comedies of yesteryear, with the enraged bluebloods shouting "top hole!" and other posh utterances rarely heard outside boarding schools for boys. The enormous supporting cast mugs splendidly. Fenella Woolgar purses her lips on demand as the prissy head housekeeper, Miss Phipps. Michael Gambon huffs and puffs ("The Boers are acting up again") as Lord Salisbury, and Simon Callow, at once hilarious and in excellent voice as the composer Puccini, lives it up briefly as the only reason for carrying the plot to Italy.
Best of all is The Night Manager's Adeel Akhtar as Abdul's sidekick Mohammed, a fuming Indian anti-colonialist who knows just where all this is headed, and who and what will end up as collateral damage. As for Abdul, he's a cipher, a dreamy-eyed, agreeable, head-nodding sort of fellow onto whom the various players project their needs, desires and the always fine British line between xenophobia and racism. To the pols, Abdul is the generic Brown Peril that threatens to topple the Empire, taking their jobs and perks with it. To Victoria's household — and especially to Izzard's vile Bertie — he's the Brown Peril period.
When it's not bowling along as a riotous satire of the British twit-oisie, this strange hybrid of a movie is also a gentle love story with no possibility of an upbeat ending. Victoria is no fool and she shows herself an adroit politician. But she's also a tragic figure, vulnerable in her old age to the trickery of those around her. And what of Abdul? To the end, Frears and Hall boldly ride two narrative horses, one the tale of a scoundrel impostor pushing his luck until it runs out, the other a gentle story of love between two innocent souls upended by racism and rank self-interest. The stories don't quite mesh, but somehow it all works.