Stephen Frears is in no doubt about his prime asset in Victoria & Abdul. Following a brief prologue in India, the action moves briskly to late 19th-century England, where a fragmented series of scenes at Windsor Castle tease us with partial glimpses of the aged Queen Victoria being hoisted out of bed, dressed and briefed for the day’s royal duties. It’s quite some time before a sweeping reveal ushers in Judi Dench decked out in magnificent widow’s weeds, her countenance terminally sour as she sits down to a luncheon marked by the customary pomp. She proceeds to wolf down her food and catch a few winks before the dessert course.
The star entrance could hardly be more celebratory if it were for an actual reigning sovereign, but of course the redoubtable Dench really is the queen of this type of role, bringing stern authority combined with an earthy disdain for fuss that humanizes the complex woman behind the figurehead.
The Judi show, minus punch, but that won’t bother the target audience.
Many inevitably will roll their eyes at another historical pageant about the British monarchy, and the depiction here of a lowly servant of the empire elevated by his eager devotion to the queen will no doubt strengthen that resistance. But the sizable constituency that turns out for glossy period drama of this kind will embrace the sumptuously appointed Victoria & Abdul as a moving account of an isolated old woman finding joy and lightness in her final years. The fact that it’s graced by another unimpeachable performance from Dench should only sweeten the deal for the Focus Features release.
In its basic narrative contours, the movie is more or less a grander replica of John Madden’s Mrs. Brown, from 1997, which mined humor and poignancy from a similar scenario of connection across class barriers. Dench in that film plays a more recently widowed Queen Victoria, coaxed out of depression by a servant who cuts through the layers of stifling protocol and gains her favor, rankling the royal household as they feel their influence waning.
Screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) preempts those comparisons with a direct reference, as the queen contemplates her solitude and the meddling of her court from her private Scottish retreat near Balmoral Castle. “They couldn’t bear me bringing John Brown here,” she regretfully recalls to Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), the handsome young Indian Muslim clerk whisked to England on a Golden Jubilee ceremonial errand that spirals — via his gentle charms and the queen’s hunger for warmth and companionship — into a mutual bond of platonic devotion.
The fact-based story — Frears and Hall acknowledge some dramatic license up front — was drawn from the book by Shrabani Basu, which in turn was inspired by volumes of Queen Victoria’s handwritten notebooks in Urdu, and by the private journals, discovered in 2010, of Karim, her friend and spiritual advisor.
The initial action doesn’t portend a light touch. Abdul is introduced hurrying through the crowded streets and bustling marketplaces of Agra, with Danny Cohen’s busy handheld camera pumping the exotic atmosphere. And the Brit officials who pluck Abdul from his job keeping the prison ledger might almost seem at home in a Monty Python sketch, with their starchy mugging and eyebrow-arching comments about “an incident with an elephant.” Likewise, the second local recruit chosen to go to England, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, funny in a thankless role), is presented as a schematic grumpy sidekick, sneering about “the oppressor” while Abdul assures him he should feel honored.
But once the action shifts to Britain and Dench takes center stage, the film eases into a pleasurable rhythm. After Abdul makes a favorable first impression by ignoring his royal etiquette instructions and making eye contact, he and Mohammed are summoned for further duty just as they’re about to be returned to India. The script convincingly establishes the parched conditions under which the queen might yearn for fresh air by having the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon) reciting a litany of downbeat news in her ear before the delivery of a wobbling jelly pudding spreads a smile across her face. “I suddenly feel a great deal better,” she says after Abdul again breaks protocol by kissing her slippers.
If that sounds like a demeaning display for the film’s second title character, it is, and the big hole in Hall’s screenplay is its failure ever to question, or even explore, Abdul’s motives. He’s a jolly instant convert to the Queen Victoria cause who utters nary a whisper of anti-colonialist discomfort, a failing that robs the entertaining film of moral complexity. It helps that Fazal, with his heartthrob looks and expressive eyes, projects such sincerity, but his character nonetheless lacks dimension.
Before long, Victoria is regularly dismissing other attendants while Abdul regales her with talk of Indian carpets, the Taj Mahal and mangoes, stoking a curiosity that seems natural for the empress of a country she’s been prevented, for safety reasons, from visiting. To the growing consternation of the royal household, headed by Henry Ponsberry (the great Tim Pigott-Smith in one of his final roles), Queen Victoria makes the two Indians her personal footmen. And while Mohammed adapts poorly to the climate, continuing to scowl about “the exploiters of a quarter of mankind,” Abdul becomes an indispensable confidant.
Hungry for more knowledge of India, the queen appoints Abdul as her teacher, or munshi, receiving daily Urdu lessons from him as part of a culturally specific education entirely new to her. Abdul’s failure to disclose his marital status, his religion, his class background or certain irregularities concerning his health cause ripples in the evolving friendship, but the queen takes it all in stride, dismissing the increasingly vocal objections of her staff of racist snobs.
Dench is irresistible as the character’s (literally) constipated heaviness falls away and she becomes almost giddy with girlish happiness. While holidaying in Florence — where Simon Callow shows up briefly, having fun as a particularly fruity Puccini — Queen Victoria requires little encouragement to sing during the evening’s entertainment, bursting with infectious delight into “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from H.M.S. Pinafore. That buoyant mood continues when Abdul takes her hand for a few waltzing turns, almost a gender-reversal of the equivalent moment in The King and I, albeit without the romantic undertones.
Naturally, the contentment of the queen and her reliance on the outsider, to the virtual exclusion of all others, pose too great a threat to the Prime Minister and the royal household, whose unrest is stoked by the return of Victoria’s son Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). Channeling his inner Oliver Reed, Izzard glowers with great panache, conveying the festering frustration of a man tired of waiting for his seemingly immortal mother to move on and hand over the crown.
If the film seldom moves in any surprising direction, nor does it ever stall. The determination with which both the queen and Abdul reaffirm their reciprocal loyalty despite vociferous opposition becomes steadily more touching, acquiring genuine pathos as her health rapidly declines. Hall overstates the obvious here and there, such as an awkward scene in which Bertie and Ponsberry ask Mohammed to serve as a spy, digging up incriminating dirt on Abdul. But fine performances from a cast of pros generally win out over the story’s more formulaic aspects.
Cohen’s camera settles down into a more composed groove once the key character dynamic is established. And while there’s no shortage of visual splendor in Alan Macdonald’s production design and Consolata Boyle’s beautiful costumes, the unconventional chemistry of the two leads gives the movie a pleasing intimacy, echoed in Thomas Newman’s score.
Reuniting with her Philomena director, Dench’s flinty intelligence and ability to pack infinite shadings into a role will be news to no one; the sense of bone-deep fatigue she brings to the part in the early and late scenes is especially affecting. But Fazal, a Bollywood star seen in Furious 7, gives her a more-than-capable foil, so even if the script does too little to balance the relationship, we remain invested in it through to the sorrowful end.
Production companies: Working Title, in association with Cross Street Films
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Paul Higgins, Robin Soans, Julian Wadham, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Lee Hall, based on Shrabani Basu’s book, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron, Tracey Seaward
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Lee Hall, Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Alan Macdonald
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Music: Thomas Newman
Editor: Melanie Ann Oliver
Casting: Leo Davis, Lissy Holm, Nandini Shrikent
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes