Victoria and Abdul
★★★★★ Dir: Stephen Frears. With: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-smith. 112 mins. Cert: PG
Stephen Frears’ latest is a cloth-eared Gunga Din tale, painted up as a chaste romance and charting the true (but never convincing) friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a young Indian Muslim. It’s only Dench’s shrewd, affecting performance that keeps this sorry affair on its feet.
Our nominal hero is Abdul Karim
(Ali Fazal), plucked out of Agra to present HM with a commemorative coin at a golden jubilee banquet. Victoria is deep in decrepitude, but she perks up like a teenager when she claps eyes on Abdul. So this is a match made in heaven: the flattered old monarch and her eager young lickspittle. It transpires that Victoria is lonely, oppressed by the royal doctor who monitors her bowel movements and the solicitous
Sir Henry Ponsonby (played by the late Tim Pigott-smith) who monitors everything else. She needs a true friend and appears to have found one in Abdul, who becomes her cherished manservant, ascends through the ranks and begins teaching her Urdu. But really, beyond the obvious, what does she see in this guy? Fazal’s performance is spectacularly uninteresting, which might not be his fault – the script by Lee Hall gives him precious little to work with. More dubiously, the film seems intent on casting Queen Victoria, the bastion of empire, as some progressive outrider, railing against white racists. Frears has made some great films
(The Grifters; Philomena; My Beautiful Laundrette) and some awful ones, too (Lay the Favourite; Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight). Victoria and Abdul belongs with the duds. Xan Brooks