“No one really knows what it’s like to be queen.” It’s 1887, and the British Empire is celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee — 50 years on the throne. Kings and princes are in attendance. So is Abdul Karim, who has traveled from his famine-ravaged India to the event to present the aging monarch with a ceremonial coin. “Whatever you do, you must not look at Her Majesty,” he is admonished. But eye contact is made, followed by a sweet smile, and a most unlikely historical friendship is born.
Judi Dench, who played the Grandmother of Europe in John Madden’s Mrs. Brown, is back in the Victoria role 20 years later, joined by Bollywood actor Ali Fazal as Abdul, who is surprised to have found favor with the Queen herself. As she questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance with a loyalty to each other that suspicious members of her household and her inner circle attempt to destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity.
The servant becomes the teacher. She asks what a mango is. He tells her. She requests one and is told, “They only grow in India.” “Well I am empress of India, so have one sent.” Problem solved.
Stephen Frears — who directed Helen Mirren to an Oscar for playing another long-reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in 2006’s The Queen — helms Victoria and Abdul from a script by Lee Hall. Focus Features will release it stateside on September 29. Check out the trailer above and tell us what you think.