Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar
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“I thought the tall one was incredibly handsome.” That’s the first impression of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), when she first sets eyes on Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who was plucked from India to become a pawn in a pageant that would present Her Royal Highness with a commemorative mohur (a gold coin). And so he and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) find themselves to stay on after the Golden Jubilee celebrations and serve the royal household.
It’s a fascinating story about a previously unknown friendship between two unlikely friends, and when it’s just focused on that, Victoria & Abdul is a charmingly light affair. Judi Dench is wonderfully cantankerous as the elderly monarch, who’s at the final leg of her reign and has given up caring what anybody thinks: she snoozes at dinner, slouches, and only really shows any sort of interest in anything when someone waves a profiterole in front of her. That’s really the main reason anyone will tune into Stephen Frears’ chocolate box comedy, and the film knows it, giving Dench a chance to relish returning to the role she once played (to BAFTA-winning success) in Mrs. Brown two decades ago. As Victoria reflects on the passing of time since then, she does so with a vulnerable, poignant weight.
Mrs. Brown, though, worked so well because Billy Connelly’s counterpart was every bit her match. Ali Fazal is a fun presence, with a winning line in infectious enthusiasm, but he’s given short shrift by a script that never quite moves beyond Victoria’s initial observation; the prison clerk was chosen to come to England because he was tall, and Lee Hall’s script doesn’t seem to have bothered much with any of his other qualities.
The result is an uneven two-hander that works when keeping it simple, but stumbles when it tries for something more complex. “Life is like a carpet,” says Abdul at one point, gamely delivering one of many clunking lines of dialogue. Then: “In India, I make a ledger of the prisoners.” “We are all prisoners,” comes Victoria’s on-the-nose, and not entirely justified, reply.
The rest of the court around her are shocked by her friendship with this outsider, especially when she appoints him as her “Munshi” (a spiritual teacher). There’s fun in seeing their reactions, played with hammy farce by Eddie Izzard (as Victoria’s petulant son), Michael Gambon and Tim Pigott-Smith. But the more the movie settles into that mode in the second half, the more it becomes a device to excuse Victoria from the colonial attitudes of the period; Dench’s queen ends up positioned as a figure of progressive diversity, despite the fact that she demonstrates this by making an Indian clerk a servant in her house. Even with their sincere chemistry, her supposed naivety over their two countries’ history and relationship is hard to swallow.
“Based on true events… mostly” is how the story is presented, which suggests a bit of airbrushing to make the film accessible to the mainstream grey pound. She talks of wanting to “be by oneself — in a simple, rudimentary existence”. You wish that the movie took a similar approach.
Victoria & Abdul is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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