Dench’s Queen still rules but side­kick lacks a voice

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Mark Kennedy

Stop us if this sounds fa­mil­iar: A tall, dark, bearded ser­vant of rough breed­ing comes from far away to sud­denly charm a grumpy, wid­owed Queen Vic­to­ria and thus up­end Britain’s royal court at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

You were per­haps think­ing of “Mrs. Brown,” a film star­ring Judi Dench as the monarch and Billy Con­nolly as her Scot­tish un­der­ling, John Brown? Well, hold on. A new movie has come along ex­actly 20 years later with an eerily sim­i­lar plot. Either Vic­to­ria was a crea­ture of habit in her at­tach­ments, or her film­mak­ers are.

Sub­sti­tute Con­nolly with Ali Fazal, and you get “Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul,” a film about the then-most pow­er­ful woman on earth’s sec­ond un­usu­ally in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with a com­moner. In this case, a Mus­lim from In­dia in 1887.

Fas­ci­nat­ingly, Dench is back as the monarch, two decades af­ter she earned an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for play­ing Vic­to­ria. It’s a priv­i­lege to watch her re­visit the crusty, we-are-no­ta­mused queen, who is now in the twi­light of her life. Dench is riv­et­ing, un­sen­ti­men­tal, im­pa­tient and glo­ri­ously brit­tle. Some­times all she does is of­fer an ir­ri­tated sigh, speak­ing vol­umes. “Ev­ery­one I loved has died, and I just go on and on,” she cries.

Dench is well sup­ported — the cast in­cludes the marvelous Ed­die Iz­zard, the late Tim Pig­ott-Smith and the im­pe­ri­ous Michael Gam­bon — and the pomp and highly chore­ographed English cer­e­mo­ni­al­ism is cap­tured beau­ti­fully by di­rec­tor Stephen Frears, who knows a thing or two about roy­alty, hav­ing di­rected Helen Mir­ren in MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for some the­matic el­e­ments and lan­guage) Run­ning time: 1:51 Opens: Fri­day “The Queen.”

There’s only one ma­jor prob­lem: The man at the cen­ter, Ab­dul Karim. He re­mains a blank can­vas, his mo­tives un­ex­plored, his in­te­rior or do­mes­tic life un­cap­tured. He is called “the brown John Brown” and of­fers no ri­poste. The ti­tle of the film prom­ises us two peo­ple, but we only get one. Per­haps screen­writer Lee Hall (“War Horse,” “Billy El­liot”) meant to leave him a cypher, al­low­ing the English to try to de­fine him, but that’s be­ing gen­er­ous.

The movie is based on jour­nal­ist Shra­bani Basu’s book “Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul: The True Story of the Queen’s Clos­est Con­fi­dant,” which told of Vic­to­ria’s close friend­ship with an In­dian ser­vant sent to the court with the sole task of of­fer­ing a gift of a cer­e­mo­nial coin. The film­mak­ers have taken fac­tual lib­er­ties; the film is “based on real events, mostly,” which is very cute but mean­ing­less.

What does Fazal’s Karim think of colo­nial­ism, of English state-spon­sored bru­tal­ity to­ward his peo­ple? We never know. “It is my hum­ble priv­i­lege to serve Her Majesty,” he says. Later, he puts on his best For­rest Gump to tell the queen that “Life is like a car­pet.” He means that all kinds of things are wo­ven into our fab­ric, but he re­ally comes off as no more than a door­mat.

Mid­way through the film, Karim has moved per­ma­nently to Eng­land and be­come the queen’s spir­i­tual ad­viser, star­tling the court with his out­sized in­flu­ence. She will have none of it, sid­ing al­ways with her strong, silent, In­dian beef­cake.

The film­mak­ers knew in 2017 they couldn’t ig­nore the hor­rors of em­pire, so it’s left to ac­tor Adeel Akhtar, who plays Karim’s more rad­i­cal­ized com­pan­ion, to carry the flag of na­tion­al­ism and an­ti­colo­nial­ism.

“Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul” comes out only a few months af­ter “Viceroy’s House,” which ex­plored how In­dia and Pak­istan were carved from the for­mer Bri­tish Em­pire in 1947. In nei­ther film do In­di­ans tell their story or any story with­out a gauzy English fil­ter. That seems deaf as well as stupid.

PETER MOUN­TAIN/FO­CUS FEA­TURES

Judi Dench plays Queen Vic­to­ria and Ali Fazal plays her spir­i­tual ad­viser in a film “based on real events, mostly,”

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