Judi Dench returns to her role as Queen Victoria 20 years later in Victoria and Abdul.
The public perception of Queen Victoria has always been defined by two halves: the first with her confidante, advisor, lover and father of her children, Albert, by her side – an emerging Queen at the forefront of the expanding British Empire on which the sun never set. The second, a portly old woman rarely seen in public, perpetually clothed in black and beset with grief at the premature death of her husband.
The latter is where we find Dench’s portrayal of Victoria here, a role she of course played 20 years ago in Mrs. Brown. Seemingly disinterested in events and news from her extensive overseas territories, she is begrudgingly celebrating her Golden Jubilee where she encounters the Indian Abdul Karim. Abdul has been selected for his height to travel to England and present the Empress of India with a ceremonial coin; a thanks from the subcontinent.
An unlikely friendship develops between the two, and the young Muslim servant is soon removed from the ranks of the foot soldier and promoted to “Munshi”, or teacher, gaining the trust and affection of the obstinate old monarch, whose cured constipation is even attributed to the Indian.
Abdul, played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal, displays absolute loyalty to the Queen and before long draws the ire of the royal household, Victoria’s son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (played well here by Eddie Izzard); everyone from the royal doctor to the Prime Minister is questioning the Queen’s relationship with the former jail clerk from Agra.
Stephen Frears is no stranger to royal drama after directing the excellent Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006), but leans towards the comedic angle here. Victoria is portrayed as being an understanding monarch, with sensibilities attributed to a contemporary perception of world views much wider than a 19th century perspective. The jingoisms are reserved for Bertie and his snobbish entourage who continually meddle in an effort to unseat Abdul’s influence.
But the majestic sets and extravagant costumes only carry the film so far, while the constant bickering between the Queen and her jealous son descends into repetition with predictable contretemps: “You can’t do that!” “I can do anything; I’m the Queen of England.” All the while Abdul stands alongside the Queen: static, dedicated and ready to fawn over her every move. We learn nothing of note about Abdul other than his unmitigated devotion to his sovereign surrogate.
Victoria and Abdul is at times very funny, but it uneasily straddles historic idealism from a time when it was anything but. Queen Victoria is conveniently painted as a progressive monarch, challenging racism and diversity. Viewers would do well to note the introductory sentence that reads: “Based on true events… mostly.”
In cinemas: September 14, 2017
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Olivia Williams
Directed by: Stephen Frears