Victoria and Abdul is a follow-up to the 1997 drama Mrs. Brown, which was an unexpected hit. Mrs. Brown was Judi Dench's first starring film role, and audiences worldwide marveled at her restrained, precise, sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of Queen Victoria. Dench so often gets typecast as royalty of one kind or another thanks to her mesmerizing ability to take advantage of close-ups: a stony, regal facade helps emphasize every cheek twitch and blink.
In Mrs. Brown, Victoria is mourning the loss of her husband, Albert, and becomes suspiciously close with one of her personal servants, John Brown—a handsome, assertive, eye-opening Scotsman that her staff despises. Queen Victoria's relationship with John Brown was real, and less than five years after Brown died, Victoria made a new guy friend.
Abdul Karim served the queen for 14 years until she died in 1901. He was one of her dearest companions, and she went to great lengths to demand that aristocrats and officials treat him with respect. He taught her Urdu, and she gave him detailed advice about his marriage. Once again, the queen's staff and family were upset by her choice of companion. But this hatred sat deeper. After the queen died, under her son Edward's order, palace officials came to Karim's home, confiscating (and later burning) anything with the royal seal. Karim was then evicted and ordered to return to India.
Despite the efforts to suppress a lasting record of Karim, journalist Shrabani Basu uncovered some of Victoria's Hindustani journals and wrote a book in 2010 offering new insights into their friendship. The timing was impeccable, with Dench now at exactly the right age to portray Victoria at the end of her life. (Let's not think about that.) Of course Dench had to play the role—and plot—again. Unfortunately, now we all have to sit through a bunch of sentimental nonsense to see Dench's truly enthralling performance.
The story that the movie told is one about how beautiful it is that people of two different colors (and religions!) can be friends. Also, being queen is awfully hard sometimes and we should all applaud Victoria for the groundbreaking work she did to further civil rights. The queen is the focus, and Abdul is loving but passive. She bestows honors and gifts upon him, and he gratefully enjoys her company. He does break some rules—making eye contact the first time he serves her and, later, catching gonorrhea—but it seems a little accidental, like he's pushing boundaries because he doesn't understand British formality and customs.
Maybe the filmmakers were trying to step away from the complaints that many of Victoria's staff and family had about Karim: that he was greedy, selfish, conniving, and not to be trusted. More likely, they were trying to make a tear-jerker and shaped the story to fit their needs. Apparently it worked, because when I saw the film, half the audience was holding tissues when the lights came on.
But in Mrs. Brown and in the actual history, it's clear that confidence (maybe a little arrogance) was a quality that really got the queen going. Though the queen's staff and family no doubt hated Karim partially because he was Indian and Muslim, they were probably right about the fact that he was self-serving. Karim started as a jail clerk and became the queen's teacher. Befriending one of the most powerful people on earth is a smart strategic move, and he took advantage of every opportunity to advance his status—because he was ambitious, confident, and intelligent. When traveling, he rode in his own private carriage behind the queen's. He insistently asked to be knighted.
All of these altered details make Victoria look very generous, and make Abdul out to be a sweet, affectionate friend that's also an exotic fascination, the kind of comforting oddity that inspires Victoria to demand someone bring her a mango. Victoria gets to be the defiant one pushing boundaries and undergoing transformations, and all of Abdul's complexity and ego, what probably attracted the queen to him in the first place, are pushed aside. Victoria's story has been told pretty thoroughly, and this was probably Abdul's only shot on the big screen. It's such a shame they wasted it.