(2017) Biographical Drama (Focus) Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Rubin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojia, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder. Directed by Stephen Frears
Queen Victoria is one of the more fascinating personages in British history. Most Americans only know caricatures of the monarch; “We are not amused.” Most Americans aren’t aware that she presided over what can be only termed as the golden age of the British empire and her iron will held that empire together until it began to crumble in the first half of the 20th century, long after she was dead.
As the Golden Jubilee of her reign is underway, the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria (Dench) mean to present her with a commemorative coin. Prison clerk Abdul Karim (Fazal) is sent to carry the coin to England, mainly because of his height. He is accompanied by Mohammed (Akhtar), an acid-tongued sort who finds England much too cold and the people much too uncivilized.
The head of the household (Pigott-Smith) gives the Indians detailed and voluminous instructions on how to behave in the Royal presence. Victoria herself is in the twilight of her life. Nearly every one of her contemporaries are gone and she lives isolated in a palace full of sharks, all jockeying for positions of favor. She feels utterly alone and has little to do but sleep and eat, plowing through her meals with gusto, so much so that her courtiers have difficulty keeping up before the course is taken away and a new one delivered.
Abdul seemingly can sense her loneliness and ignores the rules of protocol, looking the monarch in the eye and smiling, even kissing her royal feet upon their second meeting. Victoria, unused to be treated as a person rather than a symbol, is gratified and decides to keep Abdul on as a servant and eventually as an adviser and munshi, or teacher. He teaches her Urdu and waxes poetic about the land of his birth; the stories of the Taj Mahal in his native Agra and the amazing architecture of his people.
But the favor Abdul experiences with the legendary monarch disturbs and eventually angers the British court. Some of it is due to the incipient racism of the English upper classes of the time, and Abdul experiences plenty of that. However, much of it is due to the fact that they want to have the Queen’s ear the way Abdul does and soon plots to rid the court of Abdul begin to thicken, led by the Queen’s son Prince Bertie (Izzard) who would later become Edward VII. Further isolating the Queen would play into nearly everyone’s ambitions.
Dench is maybe the best British actress of the last 20 years with essentially only Helen Mirren to compete with her. Like the Victoria she portrays here, she is in the twilight of her career; at 82 and with her eyesight beginning to fail, she has talked seriously about retiring and in any case the on-screen performances left to her are dwindling; it behooves us to enjoy the ones she has left and this one is a mighty good one, already garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.
The costumes are sumptuous as is the production design as you would imagine. They are good enough that they are very strong contenders for Oscar nominations, particularly the former. Frears knows how to make a dazzling environment for his actors to work in and this is no different. Frears is one of the best British directors of his generation; he’s 78 now and like Dench, is approaching the end of his career. It makes sense that he would choose this period of Victoria’s life to film. He has set the bar high for himself and sadly, this movie doesn’t quite meet it despite the best efforts of Dench.
You’ll notice that I haven’t really mentioned a lot about the second name in the title. It’s not that Fazal doesn’t do well in his role; he certainly is more than adequate. The problem is that we see Abdul mainly as the sweet-natured teacher, who accepts whatever petty insults come his way with a bowed head and a sad smile. At times you get a sense that Abdul may have ulterior motives but there really is no follow-up. He remains an enigma through most of the movie which is strange because the book this is based on relied extensively on his diary for the information.
I don’t suppose that people who aren’t into history (Great Britain in particular) or into England in general are going to want to see this and that’s a sad commentary into how we have become a culture of avoiding any sort of knowledge or understanding. Then again, the movie fails to provide any insight into Indian culture although we get a good look at what was going on in the British nobility in the latter years of the 19th century. Considering how Abdul is treated by the movie, they may as well have just called the movie Victoria and be done with it. Dench is by far the best reason to see this movie but even her stellar efforts can’t quite overcome the movie’s shortcomings.
REASONS TO GO: Judi Dench delivers a strong performance. There is likely going to be an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Not one of Stephen Frears’ best efforts. Those who aren’t into British history will likely find nothing of value here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time Dench has portrayed Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown (1997) being the first.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Young Victoria
FINAL RATING: 6/10