Movie review: ‘Victoria & Abdul’ is a royal treat
The period drama “Victoria & Abdul,” about the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), is a royal treat. It deals with a “fat, lame and impotent” Victoria — who assumed the crown at the tender age of 18 and reigned for 63 years.
Like a romantic comedy, Victoria and Abdul “meet cute” when he is sent to England from India to present the queen with a ceremonial coin at her Golden Jubilee. His marching orders are not to make eye contact. Naturally, he does. Gazes lock. Abdul smiles. Instantly smitten with the tall, dark and handsome Abdul, Victoria looks away first. Shortly after, she calls for Abdul to present “the royal pudding” at the next meal. Then she requests Abdul be her personal footman. A friendship blossoms, much to the shock and horror (“But, he’s a Muslim!”) of, well, everyone.
Eclectic director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Philomena,” “High Fidelity,” “The Grifters”) bathes his film in that lavish Masterpiece Theater aura while maintaining a sometimes cheeky tone, relaying in an opening crawl that the story is “based on real events ... mostly.” Thus clearing the way for screenwriter Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Frears to take dramatic liberties. All for the good because what ensues is a charming, lively and satirical comedy of manners that doesn’t shy away from fully displaying British prejudice and hypocrisy.
Frears has a lot of fun with the ridiculous pageantry and pomp of the royal court, the cleansing of the “royal colon” and the scheming and backstabbing happening between the queen’s family and closest advisors, namely her cunning son, Bertie (an exasperated Eddie Izzard), Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby (the late Tim Pigott-Smith). They’re all stupid aristocratic fools jockeying for position.
Their agenda is to convince the 81-year-old Victoria to hang up her crown. And with good reason. She falls asleep at state dinners and loudly snores. And clearly she’s on a descent into madness, especially her “carrying on” with the boyishly endearing Abdul. He’s her “munshi,” a Hindi instructor. And his friendship puts spring back in the dowager queen’s step. He schools her on the teachings of the Koran and the finer points of mangoes and Indian spices. Though it’s more of a maternal relationship, this is the first time Victoria feels vital — he awakens her spirit — since the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert at age 42. Victoria spent the last 40 years of her reign grief stricken. “Everyone I really love has died and I just go on and on,” she says.
Dench makes Victoria’s grief palpable, an aching sense of loss and futility in her later years. She also immerses herself in the physicality of the character — shuffling along with a cane, dancing a waltz. This is Dench’s second go-round portraying Victoria. She first wore the crown 20 years ago in “Mrs. Brown,” a riveting turn that earned her an Oscar nomination. This is a different time period in the queen’s life, but Dench is equally adept at playing her part strong, obstinate and vulnerable. She can register with a raised eyebrow or pursed mouth a range of emotions that keeps you absorbed. That skill is absolutely necessary when portraying a person who carries heavy burdens and must keep her emotions in check. Not that the queen doesn’t express herself. But it’s done with great irony and many caustic remarks. When Bertie asserts that she treats Abdul like a member of the family, she quips, “No, I like him.”
For all its wit and whimsy, “Victoria & Abdul” stumbles in the final stanzas. The script contrives the requisite falling out that drives them apart (just like a rom-com) and the subsequent resolution and big emotional finish that isn’t fully earned. Before you get there, though, Dench delivers a commanding monologue, a real showstopper, after Bertie calls her certifiable and the household staff threatens to resign. Her response: “I’m cantankerous, greedy, fat, selfish, myopic, disagreeably attracted to power ... I’m anything but insane.” It’s a scene fit for a queen and that could nab Dench another well-deserved Oscar nomination. Long live the queen.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Victoria & Abdul”
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith.
(PG-13 for thematic elements, language).