Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Piggot-Smith, Michael Gambon
An ageing British monarch. An eager Indian attendant. A friendship that defies boundaries and custom. The platonic but passionate relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim should have been the stuff of grand emotion and high drama. This story, which unfolded in 1887, when Ali was randomly selected to present a ceremonial coin at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Banquet, also has multiple meanings for our time – Ali is Muslim and among other things, he teaches the most powerful woman in the world to speak Urdu.
But this potent material, adapted by Lee Hall from a book by Shrabani Basu, makes for tepid cinema. Victoria & Abdul has moments of sparkling comedy and a magisterial performance by Dame Judi Dench. But it’s essentially toothless and bland. Director Stephen Frears doesn’t probe into anything too prickly. So Abdul is unquestioningly loyal. At one point, we are told that he has gonorrhea but there is no further examination of that fact. Not once does Abdul express anger or even frustration at the havoc the British Raj has wreaked in his country. There is no complexity to him or his position as the hem-kissing munshi to an empress who has never stepped foot in India. He has no angst at all and happily speaks to her about the glories of mango chutney.
This is the film’s fatal flaw. Ali Fazal fits the part – he is handsome and amiable. And he does what he can but Abdul isn’t a character, he’s a symbol. The folks in Victoria’s constellation are all uniformly waspish – Eddie Izzard plays her son Bertie - King Edward VII, Michael Gambon is Lord Salisbury and Tim Pigott-Smith is Sir Henry Ponsonby. All of them hover and fret about the sudden closeness between Victoria and Abdul. Again, they aren’t characters, they are types.
It is then up to the Dame to save the day and she doesn’t falter.
This is a role Dench has played before – in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown, a similar story about Queen Victoria’s relationship with her late husband’s Scottish horseman John Brown. Dench is regal but also vulnerable and desperately sad. In one scene, she laments her own vitality – she says everyone she loves has gone but she just keeps living. There is so much pain and loneliness in her voice that you instantly understand why Victoria might be relieved to have someone to talk to.
Dench fills every frame. I wish the rest of the film had matched her heft.