It’s too good a story to let the truth get in the way of it: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) is said to have struck up an intimate quasi-romantic friendship with a male Indian servant during the later years of her reign and to have made Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) her personal munshi (teacher) in defiance of court opposition.
Lee Hall’s (Billy Elliot) script mildly pokes fun at courtly pomposity, while eventually treating the relationship between Victoria and Karim as a balanced friendship – when surely the truth was more difficult. It’s obvious where the power lies here, yet most complexities are sidelined.
Victoria and Abdul plays first as a gaudy fish-out-of-water comedy and only later settles into something gentler and mildly serious as Victoria begins to wane and the opposition to Karim grows.
This kid-gloves historical storytelling is sometimes amusing, and occasionally touching, but there’s nothing here to scare the horses.
The bottom line Sweet but pretty dreary, despite Dame Judi.