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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Victoria and Abdul is a fact-based drama about the elderly Queen Victoria's (Judi Dench) unique relationship with Abdul Karim, a Muslim Indian man who starts off as her servant until she elevates his status, scandalizing her family and household staff. Expect occasional strong language ("s--t," "bloody," "arsehole") and a couple of disturbing scenes: one in which royal security officers harass a Muslim family and burn their belongings, and another in which a man coughs up blood. A dead body is shown, and a few racist remarks are said in reference to Abdul. It has a clear message about very different people being able to bond over universal experiences and feelings, and curiosity and gratitude are themes. Families who watch together may want to discuss the film's historical context, as well as how fact-based dramas sometimes take liberties for the sake of fiction.
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What's the story?
VICTORIA AND ABDUL chronicles the unique relationship between the elderly Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a young Indian Muslim man named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) -- one of two Indians chosen to present the queen with a gift during her Golden Jubilee celebrations. The year is 1887, and Victoria is, after 50 years on the throne, tired and bored with the endless rounds of ceremonial duties and banquets. Spotting the handsome Abdul brings her some joy, so he and his fellow Indian servant, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), are told to stay in England to serve the queen. Soon, Abdul charms her with his poetic musings, and she elevates his status to that of "Munshi" ("teacher" in Urdu) and keeps him (and eventually his family) as part of the royal household. Meanwhile, Victoria's friendship with (and apparent crush on) the "brown," low-born man, scandalizes everyone around her, including her oldest son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard); her private secretary, Sir Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith); her personal physician, Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins); and the prime minister (Michael Gambon). But the queen enjoys the Munshi so much that she ignores their demands and continues to keep him by her side.
Is it any good?
Dench is extraordinary as the aging monarch, but this drama doesn't quite reveal enough about the mysterious, fascinating friendship between the queen and her Indian servant-turned-mentor. Victoria and Abdul is similar in scope and sequence to 1997's John Madden-directed Mrs. Brown, in which Dench also starred as Queen Victoria and which also involved the remarkable story of the monarch's unconventional relationship with a servant who became a beloved confidante. In some ways, Abdul is even more noteworthy than the earlier film's John Brown (Billy Connolly), because, while there are no sexual rumors about his relationship with the queen, the Indian Muslim Abdul was elevated far above the Scottish Brown. In a time when British whites overtly considered themselves superior to the black and brown citizens of their extended empire, that was extraordinary.
Fazal, a Bollywood star, is definitely appealing, but his portrayal of Abdul is a little too subdued (particularly when compared to Dench's performance) to justify how deeply the queen became attached to him. Izzard is entertaining as Bertie, the Prince of Wales, who's slightly villainous in his approach to Abdul. But director Stephen Frears introduces real questions that the script never answers, and the film depicts Abdul as far too saintly to seem real, especially considering a few unsavory things revealed about him. Ultimately this is a movie you watch to see Dench nail another performance as a former queen of England -- and she's quite riveting as the bored, grumpy, aging Victoria who finally finds someone who can cure her monarchy's monotony.
Talk to your kids about ...
Does this movie make you interested in learning more about Queen Victoria, India under British rule, or other historical details?
How accurate do you think this version of events really is? Why do you think filmmakers might sometimes choose to alter the facts in movies based on true stories? How could you find out more?
- In theaters: September 22, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: December 19, 2017
- Cast: Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Ali Fazal
- Director: Stephen Frears
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship, History
- Character Strengths: Curiosity, Gratitude
- Run time: 112 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some thematic elements and language
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