Victoria & Abdul
2017, PG-13, 112 min. Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams, Adeel Akhtar, Simon Callow.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 6, 2017
There’s not a whole lot to Victoria & Abdul, but fans of stories about the royals should find their thirsts satisfied. Judi Dench reunites with her Philomena director Stephen Frears to play Queen Victoria in a tale that we’re told in a coy preface is “based on a true story … mostly.” The film tells the story of the Queen’s platonic relationship with her Indian servant Abdul Karim (Fazal). The film shares many similarities with 1997’s Mrs. Brown, Dench’s earlier take on the widowed queen, who in that film takes a shine to a Scottish servant at Balmoral Castle. Both films are very circumspect and stingy with information about what made these unconventional friendships tick.
Abdul Karim, an Indian clerk in a prison in Agra, is sent to England, along with sidekick Mohammed (Akhtar), to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen. Instructed to not look directly at the Queen, Abdul flagrantly smiles at her and then falls to the floor to kiss her feet during the presentation. Obviously intrigued, Queen Victoria, who has tired of her royal duties, wants Abdul to teach her to speak and write Hindi, although he informs her that Urdu would be a more proper language for her to learn. Her palace staff and family are horrified by the inappropriate relationship, but opprobrium bothers the Queen not a bit. This is where Dench’s imperious qualities come to the fore.
There is a lot that could have been examined regarding the British Empire and its spread of colonialism. Aside from Abdul’s natural desire to make the most of his opportunity, Lee Hall’s screenplay (based on a book by Shrabani Basu) reveals absolutely nothing about this Muslim man and what he thinks of the situation. Throughout the film, many of the Queen’s castles are visited, but they appear like catnip tossed out to devout royal watchers. Eddie Izzard has an amusing turn as the Queen’s disappointing son Bertie. Yet as pleasantly amusing as Victoria & Abdul is, the film is really little more than another showcase for Judi Dench’s reigning talent.