It’s strange to think of Victoria & Abdul as a sequel of sorts, but it’s impossible not to with Judi Dench reprising her role as Queen Victoria, a part she played 20 years ago in Mrs. Brown. This time around, Dench plays one of the longest-serving monarchs in British history toward the end of her life, when existence has become something to be endured, where nothing about her day-to-day duties interests her enough to even stay awake through it. Perhaps no one was more eager for the sweet release of death than Victoria.
But in 1887, when a young man from India named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) comes to visit to deliver a ceremonial medal from the land of which Victoria is empress but has never visited, she becomes curious about his life, language, and Muslim spiritual beliefs. Their resulting controversial friendship stirred things up in the royal court to such a degree that nearly all records of Abdul were destroyed upon the queen’s death.
Based on journalist Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, adapted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), and directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen), Victoria & Abdul is more than just the story of a teacher and an eager pupil, who is simply attempting to learn something about a nation and people that she technically rules over. It’s very clear that Victoria is taken with the tall, dark and handsome man, whom she eventually makes her spiritual adviser (or Munshi). It’s a love story with a traditional romance at the center, and the storm it causes in the household is unprecedented, to the point where Victoria’s son, the power-hungry Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), threatens to have her declared insane in order to remove her from the throne.
Although the film gives in too often to the idea that there was the army of opposition to this friendship (it’s always fun to have villains in your movie), the best moments of Victoria & Abdul are those in which the queen and Abdul are together, alone, discussing their differences and similarities through talk of power, religion and the racial divide between the British and Indians, and how it all relates to the concept of empire. I’ll give director Frears credit for understanding that there are few things more engaging than listening to and watching Dench simply speak, and when he concentrates on that, the film in infinitely better. But in other scenes involving those plotting to disrupt the relationship (including characters played by worthy actors such as Michael Gambon and Olivia Williams), the drama unfolds in a cliché-riddled manner and drains the story of its true power.
And while the film might sound quite serious minded, it’s actually consistently funny, thanks again to the brilliant comic timing of Dench. There are few things more amusing than an all-powerful monarch taking the wind out of the room with a zinger, and Victoria has quite a few aimed right at the yes-men and -women who surround her. There are great moments involving the queen redecorating entire homes to honor her newfound interest in the Muslim religion, or expressing barely contained shock when she finds out her beloved Munshi has a wife back in India.
As lightweight at the material can be at times, Victoria & Abdul serves as both a fascinating and untold final chapter to Queen Victoria’s extraordinary life, and a reminder that no matter how hard some may try to bury the truth, the most interesting stories inevitably make their way into the light.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and the AMC River East 21.