Victoria and Abdul Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
The relationship between Queen Victoria of England and servant Abdul Karim was undoubtedly complex, a reflection on colonialism, monarchy and religious and racial differences, but Stephen Frears’ film Victoria and Abdul turns it into a dopey sitcom. Based on Shrabani Basu’s nonfiction book, the movie sheds light on the connection between Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul (Ali Fazal) late in the monarch’s life, when the Indian civil servant first traveled to England to present her with a ceremonial gift. The temperamental Victoria took a liking to the intelligent, outspoken Abdul, and ended up making him a key member of her household for the next 15 years, until her death.
The screenplay by Lee Hall treats the dynamic between Victoria and Abdul like something out of Perfect Strangers, with goofy fish-out-of-water comedy as the Indian Muslim adjusts to life in England and deals with the disapproval of the queen’s advisors, staffers and family members, most notably her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who’s next in line for the throne. Fazal (a well-known Bollywood star) is moderately charming as Abdul, but the character is little more than a one-dimensional prop for Dench’s ferocious performance as Victoria.
Reprising a role she played in 1997’s Mrs. Brown (also about Victoria’s relationship with an unlikely companion), Dench is commanding but not surprising, hitting all the expected notes of haughtiness and melancholy. She’s the only actor given a fully realized character; the rest of the royal officials are comical stereotypes of British fussiness, while Abdul’s wife, whom he eventually brings over from India, gets a single line in the entire movie.
Even the movie’s more serious moments ring false, which is especially disappointing given that part of the point is to bring wider recognition to the story of Abdul’s life. Frears previously directed a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of British royal life in The Queen, but he doesn’t bring any subtlety to Hall’s screenplay, presenting the story with surface professionalism and nothing more. It’s entertaining and occasionally affecting to watch Dench play a fearsome grande dame one more time, but her performance isn’t worth much in a movie that so cheaply dismisses its own real-life subjects.