Dench’s Queen still rules but sidekick lacks a voice
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.
Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal plays her spiritual adviser in a film “based on real events, mostly,”