Director: Stephen Frears
Run Time: 1h 51m
Dame Judi Dench earns 2 full stars all on her own. Her costar Ali Fazal is another solid star. The rest of Victoria and Abdul is entirely forgettable.
Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) is no stranger to controversy or gossip. Her entire life has been a constant struggle against all who want to control her. Unfortunately for them Victoria is a stubborn woman who will stop and nothing to get her way. At least she used to be that way. In her old age she has settled into a mostly complacent life of eating and sleeping. Until a Muslim clerk from India enters her life. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was one of two Indians selected to travel to England to present the Queen with a coin in honor of her Golden Jubilee (50 years on the throne). What was meant to be a simple — and quick — task turned into an elongated visit when Queen Victoria befriends Abdul. The entire Court cannot fathom the Queen’s obsession with such a friendship and they stop and nothing to tear the two apart. But the Queen has found a new appreciation for learning and life with Abdul by her side and she makes him her private secretary, giving him his own place at Court. Their friendship was not well received but the relationship blossomed nonetheless. The end.
Unfortunately there is nothing groundbreaking or moving going on with Victoria and Abdul. Even though it’s based on a true story, it’s a recycled formula that we’ve seen many times before. Someone important befriends a nobody and the popular kids make trouble. Your point is?
Luckily for the filmmakers, Judi Dench never phones in a performance. She is glorious and gracious with every role and Victoria is no different. She brings a life and a light to her character that no one else would be capable of. Her performance is a standout component in keeping this film together. Ali Fazal is also wonderful. But it’s at no fault of his own that even he pales in comparison to Dench. The two have an obvious chemistry and rapport that is the single driving force to making this film as lovable as it is.
The harsh truth is this movie doesn’t dive beneath the surface. The issues of race, class, and culture that it’d like you to question and debate aren’t actually dealt with. It’s presented instead by a series of jokes or secondhand dialogue. No one actually cares about what they are saying or doing. The “villains” aren’t really into why they’re doing something, only that they are doing it. It’s basically two hours of “The Court will ruin the Queen. The Queen doesn’t give two sh*ts.” Over and over again. The only semblance of heart and understanding is found by a scene Dench and Fazal share towards the end of the film. But we have to wait a long time to get there.
As with any period piece, I tend to pay extra attention to costumes and surroundings. The costumes in Victoria and Abdul are nice. Not extravagant or memorable though. Just like the film as a whole.
I promise you’ll enjoy Victoria and Abdul if you see it. But you probably won’t have much more to say beyond “It was pleasant.” It’s a safe rental if you’re a fan of period films. Or of Dench.
Looking at Stephen Frears’ past work, you’ll see a pattern of using strong women to tell a feel-good story. My favorite is Philomena, but Judi Dench played another sassy widow with an out-of-the-box idea in Mrs. Henderson Presents.
However, if you’re more interested in the life of the beloved Queen Victoria, PBS has picked up a wonderful show (originally aired on Britain’s ITV station). Jenna Coleman stars as the young Queen Victoria.