The title of “Victoria & Abdul” — Stephen Frears’ blandly sumptuous crowd-pleaser — seems to promise an equitable pairing of the two main characters, but that promise is swiftly obliterated as our most regal living actress revisits one of her most celebrated roles.
Dench first played Queen Victoria two decades ago in John Madden’s “Mrs. Brown” (opposite Billy Connolly), which earned her the first of seven Oscar nominations. The new film again depicts the withdrawn widow raising eyebrows by bringing another outsider into the royal fold when she forms a platonic but close relationship with Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim clerk whom she employs as her personal servant.
The movie begins in 1887, the year of the queen’s Golden Jubilee, for which the high-spirited, 24-year-old Abdul (Ali Fazal) and his grumpy friend Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) travel from their home in Agra, India, to England to deliver a ceremonial gold coin to Her Majesty.
Cut to a celebratory lunch at Windsor Castle, where Victoria sits at the head of a very long table and, looking too weary and cantankerous to even bother making conversation, proceeds to voraciously devour one course after another while her guests try to keep up. Into this world of pompous protocol comes the meek Abdul, resplendent in his uniform.
“Terribly handsome” is Victoria’s assessment, and that’s enough to extend Abdul’s stay, during which he and the queen cement their friendship over private conversations about India — a country she holds dominion over as empress, but which she has never once set foot in. Abdul delights her with stories about the delicious taste of mango and the beauty of the Taj Mahal, and before long she has promoted him to the position of a scholar tasked with giving her lessons in Urdu and the Koran.
Though a foreign-born commoner, Abdul represents the opposite of the scheming sycophants in her court, who are scandalized that an Indian man has risen to a position of trust and power that eludes them all. There are a lot of racist, villainous fish to fry here, none more deserving than Victoria’s son, Edward VII, a.k.a. Bertie (an excellent Eddie Izzard), although the prime minister (Michael Gambon) and the imperious Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) run close seconds.
Danny Cohen’s camera leans in to observe the characters as they cajole, plot and argue, but is distracted by the spectacle of servants lining up in perfect formation and the rich colors of Consolata Boyle’s costumes.
“Victoria & Abdul” offers a look Osborne House, Victoria’s holiday retreat on the Isle of Wight. And while Dench’s performance breaks no new ground, she flawlessly embodies the contradictory impulses — openness to late-in-life experience, girlish delight in Abdul’s presence and a steely defiance of almost everyone else — that made Victoria so formidable.
As Abdul, Fazal projects decency and compassion, even when less-flattering aspects of his background are brought to light by his rivals. But it’s insulting that we never learn of Abdul’s desires that lurk beneath his unquestioning devotion to his benefactress. He stands tall in the background of scene after scene, remaining silently while Victoria defends him against the bigots in their midst.
That inaction makes “Victoria & Abdul” feel like a movie that refuses to practice the enlightenment it preaches. Queen Victoria may well have been genuinely interested in Indian life, but this genteel, self-satisfied movie doesn’t begin to share her curiosity, much less earn ours.
‘Victoria & Abdul’
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and language)
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon
Director: Stephen Frears
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
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