DI­REC­TOR Stephen Frears CAST Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Adeel Akhtar, Ed­die Iz­zard, Tim Pig­ott-smith, Olivia Wil­liams

PLOT Late in her reign, the bored, sti­fled and mourn­ful Queen Vic­to­ria (Dench) en­coun­ters a young In­dian clerk named Ab­dul Ka­reem (Fazal). Af­ter be­com­ing un­likely friends, their re­la­tion­ship deep­ens, with Vic­to­ria an­nounc­ing Ali as her “Mun­shi”, or In­dian Sec­re­tary — much to the con­ster­na­tion of her courtiers, par­tic­u­larly her son, Ber­tie (Iz­zard), the fu­ture King Ed­ward VII.

TWENTY YEARS ON from John Mad­den’s Mrs Brown, Judi Dench is back in black, perched once more on the Im­pe­rial throne and por­tray­ing a Queen Vic­to­ria who may be much older (by 24 years, to be pre­cise) but is no wiser (ar­guably) in her choice of close male com­pan­ions. Dench’s re­turn to the role that, in 1998, earned her the first of five lead ac­tress Os­car noms sug­gests Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul is a sort-of se­quel, al­beit one from an en­tirely dif­fer­ent creative team and in which no other ac­tor re­vis­its their role; Prince Ber­tie, for ex­am­ple, has trans­muted from David West­head to Ed­die Iz­zard, on cad­dishly con­niv­ing form here as the vil­lain of the piece. Writer Lee Hall doesn’t see any rea­son to ig­nore the last Dench-vic out­ing, and in fact em­braces the cross-ref­er­enc­ing. It’s hard to imag­ine the scene in which the Queen tells us how much she misses “dear John Brown” hav­ing quite the same im­pact with any­one else in the role.

Di­rec­tor Stephen Frears ev­i­dently re­alises this too, and hav­ing col­lab­o­rated so fruit­fully with Dench on both Mrs Hen­der­son Presents (lead ac­tress Os­car nom num­ber three) and

Philom­ena (lead ac­tress Os­car nom num­ber five), en­sures she’s here em­ployed to max­i­mum ef­fect. This Vic­to­ria is a monarch trudg­ing through the twi­light of her reign, an iso­lated ma­tri­arch whose fam­ily just wants her out of the way. At times, dur­ing Vic­to­ria’s more painful and pow­er­ful mono­logues, Frears pushes his cam­era so close to Dame Judi’s face it’s al­most un­com­fort­able. But boy, does it work; Dench has once more made this iconic fig­ure en­gag­ingly, re­lat­ably and all-too-fal­li­bly hu­man — right down to her very pores.

You wouldn’t envy the ac­tor who had to play the all-new A to her V. But Bol­ly­wood up-and­comer Ali Fazal gamely ac­cepts the chal­lenge, tak­ing on the role of the his­tor­i­cally smoth­ered

(un­til re­cently, at least) Ab­dul Karim, and chan­nels a buoy­ant charisma that makes it easy to be­lieve that dispir­ited Vic­to­ria could fall for him so hard, pla­ton­i­cally speak­ing. His Ab­dul is a cheery, op­ti­mistic naïf — a fish who’s re­ally dig­ging life out of wa­ter. He’s too quick to set­tle into the el­e­vated niche Vic­to­ria carves for him and too blithe about the starchy Bri­tish feath­ers he’s ruf­fling, but he gen­uinely val­ues this cross-gen­er­a­tional, cross-cul­tural friend­ship, gen­tly teach­ing her Urdu, or en­thu­si­as­ti­cally de­scrib­ing for her the joys of man­gos.

With all the racist snip­ing from the court side­lines (“She’ll be wear­ing a burqa next,” grum­bles Michael Gam­bon’s Lord Sal­is­bury) and the pre­pos­ter­ous treat­ment of the friend­ship as a build­ing na­tional cri­sis, the film is res­o­nant with con­tem­po­rary echoes and projects them well. The ul­ti­mate treat­ment of the Mus­lim Karim and his fam­ily is ab­hor­rent. But with its pre­dom­i­nantly light-hearted tone, it’s per­haps too quick to ex­cuse Ab­dul’s dodgier ac­tions and largely evades the fact that he was ar­guably a char­la­tan — even if a benev­o­lent one, both in terms of open­ing Vic­to­ria’s mind as well as her heart. In that sense, it lacks a layer of moral am­bi­gu­ity that could have fur­ther en­riched the drama.

For­tu­nately, this does lit­tle to tar­nish the wor­thy dou­ble act at the hub of the nar­ra­tive. One which proves both a wor­thy Bri­tish break­out for the ap­peal­ing Fazal, and pro­vides a Na­tional Trea­sure™ with a se­cond chance to achieve a Victorian Os­car vic­tory.

VERDICT A sorta-se­quel to Mrs Brown deals ef­fec­tively with another of Queen Vic­to­ria’s un­con­ven­tional friend­ships and reprises Judi Dench’s pow­er­ful and un­par­al­leled por­trayal.

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