Judi Dench has made a late career from playing the Queen of England in various guises, here she brings her considerable talents to a little known and seemingly amazing story.
Abdul Kharim (Ali Fazal) is a low born clerk, tallying and detailing prisoners names in Agra, India circa 1887. One day he is chosen due to his height, to travel to England to present a gold coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) as part of a celebratory dinner.
Victoria is old, still mourning the loss of her husband Albert many years before. She is by her own admission, miserable, cranky, obese, greedy and possessing many other undesirable qualities. Somehow she connects with Abdul and a great friendship blossoms.
As Karim’s star ascends within the palace as the Queen’s “Munshi” (teacher), he makes powerful enemies including soon to be King “Bertie” (Eddie Izzard) and Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith). Hardly surprising given the circumstances and jealous protection of rank and privilege at the time.
This is an interesting tale based mainly on fact. The Royal Family at the time, choosing to expunge all reference to the platonic but close friendship, following Victoria’s death. The story only reaching the light of day following research by a journalist together with the eventual discovery of Karim’s personal diaries.
Director Stephen Frears has made some odd stylistic choices. With such a talented cast and apparent budget and location shoot, this could have been Oscar fare. Dench adds her usual class and Karim is adequate, given the role. However the supporting cast seem hell bent on caricaturing their roles, with some amateurish over the top performances.
The film veers uncomfortably from comedy to drama. Whilst there are undoubtedly touching scenes, a visit to a lonely Scottish castle an example but the tone of the film feels uneven.
Overall the film feels clumsily handled and responsibility must fall to the director and writer, adapting the screen play from the book by aforementioned journalist Shrabani Basu.
The obvious cultural divide and questions around religion are not always sensitively portrayed. The arrival of Karim’s wife later in the film, unbalances the story somewhat, although to be fair this is again based on fact. Karim’s motivations also remain a mystery, seemingly devoted to Victoria without explanation or forethought. Arguably was he truly devoted or was he just a calculated social climber, no answers are even hinted at here.
Izzard who can disappear into films, here seems out of place and Dr Reid (Paul Higgins) at times feels like he is acting in a farce, rather than a serious film. Quite why the plot thread around Karim’s “health” is brought to the forefront is also rather questionable, unless this provides cover for more race based bias in the Royal households attitude to Karim.
Somewhat disappointing overall, although worth a watch if the subject matter is of interest
A great historical story based on real events that could and arguably should represent more than the sum of it’s parts.