As Dame Judi Dench reprises her role as Queen Victoria, TV3’s movie expert Kate Rodger wonders if this one will be an Oscar-winning performance.
Victoria & Abdul Starring Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams and Michael Gambon. Directed by Stephen Frears.
Twenty years after she first played Queen Victoria on the big screen in Mrs Brown, Dame Judi Dench returns to do so again. Based on the book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu, the cinematic version of these events comes courtesy of British filmmaker Stephen Frears. And Frears knows his way around Buckingham Palace; he’s the man behind that other marvellous royal romp, The Queen. Dame Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her Queen Elizabeth – will Dame Judi Dench finally win hers as Victoria?
In the twilight years of Victoria’s incredible reign as monarch, a young Indian man is sent to Britain to present the Empress of India with a gift upon the occasion of her golden jubilee. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is sternly warned he must not, under any circumstances, make eye contact with the Queen. It would be the first of many, many times that Abdul would defy members of the royal household.
An unlikely friendship is born and Abdul would soon become a staple member of Victoria’s entourage, becoming known as “the Munshi”, her teacher. Needless to say, the sight of a handsome young Indian man at her side didn’t just create a stir, it created a storm. And the more she entrusted Abdul with, the bigger that storm grew.
There are many narrative similarities here with the story of Victoria and her Mr Brown as her court flutters and fusses around her, jostling for favour. Both friendships were regarded as scandalous, and in the case of Abdul things are even more complicated. His influence is far more alarming – he’s Indian, and a common peasant at that. Soon the Queen’s son and future king, Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), will mount a full-scale offensive against Abdul. His mission: to discredit the Munshi, and send him back to India.
Eddie Izzard is an unexpected highlight of this film as Bertie, plumbing much needed emotional depths and proving he is more than capable of delivering on far more demanding roles. He and Dench are a simple joy to watch, sparring as mother and son, queen and heir apparent, together adding much needed heft to proceedings. For while there is plenty to love about this story and this film, there is a strange stiltedness to the telling at times, a little too Masterpiece Theatre and not enough impact and edge to elevate it to big-screen status.
There is, of course, that one irrefutable truth which should govern any movie choice and should almost certainly govern you here: any time spent in a cinema with Dame Judi is time and money well spent.
An unlikely friendship is born.