Movie Review: Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench brings humour and human frailty to the iconic image of Queen Victoria in a surprisingly intimate take on friendship from director Stephen Frears
Victoria and Abdul
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Running time: 1 hr 52 mins
By Katherine Monk
The big speech happens in the final third of the film. It’s not a formal address, or even a public event. Queen Victoria is simply given a chance to articulate everything she’s accomplished over the course of wearing the crown.
Screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) works with Shrabani Basu’s book to create a fictional moment of royal ownership that lacks nothing save a finger snap and a hip shake. Not that Dame Judi Dench doesn’t deliver the facial equivalent in her studied, aristocratic scorn. She owns this role the way Victoria owned the throne: with a quick wit and a declarative tone.
There’s also a sense of destiny about it. Given the number of royal chronicles over the past few years, from Elizabeth and The King’s Speech, to The Queen and The Crown, it only makes sense to give Victoria another pass.
Emily Blunt and Jean Marc-Vallée brought her to life in the largely underrated and under-noticed The Young Victoria in 2009, but Stephen Frears is going for the dowager Empress from later photographs and old money: Stoically bearing the crown, layered in black taffeta, well-settled into a 63-year-reign.
For this iconic image, destiny may as well have chosen Dench. She’s the undisputed ruler of her age group (not counting Helen Mirren, disqualified for playing Elizabeth II). More importantly, she’s got the spirit to animate a larger-than-life character without going big.
Dench’s first flourish comes with a snore, falling asleep at lunch between profiteroles. She’s a matriarch who’s surrendered to hunger, her only tangible pleasure, and she’s suffering the health consequences. We hear about most of them, because her staff kept a diary of every royal bowel movement — such as there were.
She’s suffering. She’s all clogged up. She needs to cleanse something deep inside herself, and it’s then — in the moment she opens her eyes at her golden jubilee lunch — that she sees a handsome man in a turban.
An envoy sent from India to issue her a special coin, Abdul Karim stands out from the rest — and the next day she hires him to be part of her personal staff. Selected for his ceremonial role because he was tall, and nothing else, Abdul (Ali Fazal) has no problem adapting to his new environment. They wanted a certain look, and he was happy to don the costume, even if it had little connection to his actual clothes.
The same could be said about his character. He’s a bit of a changeling, but the Queen is too dazzled by his whole presence to even care what’s real or what’s manufactured. She’s consumed by his stories of India. She laps up his history lessons. She devours his language tutorials. She wants him around all the time, so she bestows upon him the role of Munshi — a secretary, but also a personal sage and advisor.
Her family, not to mention the entire English court, is aghast. They try to sabotage the friendship and ruin his credibility, but sooner or later, we know a big Queen’s speech is coming.
We also know the story is based on truth. There are portraits of Abdul Karim. There is a written record, and though much of his legacy was destroyed, Ali Fazal resurrects the core charisma that clearly seduced Her Majesty. Alive and sensuous, deferent yet not diminished, Abdul sees the blessing of his opportunity to be close to the Queen — but he also sees the absurdity of his very presence.
His buddy (Adeel Akhtar) is desperate to go home. The English winters are killing him, but Abdul is a man committed to living in the moment.
To Victoria’s heir, Bertie (later to become King Edward VII), he is merely an opportunist. Eventually, he faces off with dear old Mum, and that cues the big speech.
It’s a good speech, but it would be little more than a professional resume without the power of Dench making it all personal. She looks at every cast mate differently, refining each delicate personal relationship through each angle.
Hall’s script (based on Shrabani Basu’s work) sometimes feels a little too treacle, a little too predictable in its emotional beats, but Frears’s direction and Dench’s performance bring endless wrinkles to each scene.
The gorgeous production values bring another layer of lacquer to this period piece, giving it added depth through complete environments that bring Victorian England alive in a very intimate way.
So much is changing in the outside world. Electricity, photography, the decline of Empires. Yet, we hear the murmurs of war and slaughter through the muffled comfort of satin pillows and silk wallpaper.
Frears creates a matron’s womb, a lonely castle, where the only thing that offers light is wrapped in a dark complexion. The director of My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen, Philomena, and most recently, Florence Foster Jenkins, doesn’t shy away from the more controversial topics of politics, religion and race. They simply get filtered through royal hushes.
The amount of awareness is where Frears balances both the humour and the drama because it’s the core of the story, both emotionally as well as politically. We can laugh at the politesse disguising denial, at the court’s insistence on the upholding the crusty status quo, but Abdul is the emissary of change.
In Fazal’s hands, he’s impossible to not like. We may love him. Yet, it’s a credit to both actor and director that there’s also room to distrust him, even fear him. Change reveals character. The brave embrace what cowards are eventually forced to accept.
By the end of her life, Victoria could write in Urdu and Hindi. She was brave enough to embrace a new point of view without flinching at her own ignorance. Dench’s performance grounds the grand themes in granny farts and lip debris, but the courage behind the player, and her inspiration, is immutable.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features.
THE EX-PRESS, October 6, 2017