Victoria and Abdul

 

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Stephen Frears’ sequel to Mrs Brown is an engaging and timely diversion, capped by another wonderful turn from Judi Dench.

   
Victoria and Abdul

Queen Judi with Ali Fazal

 

Few actresses do royalty like Judi Dench. She received her first Oscar nomination for playing Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown and actually won the award for her imperious portrayal of Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. She even played Titania, Queen of the fairies, in Peter Hall’s film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968).

 

Here, she reprises her turn as Victoria, a monarch now very much in her autumnal years and bored with the endless ritual of ceremony. Her one appetite would seem to be for food, as chronicled in such forensic detail in Annie Gray’s recent book The Greedy Queen. In fact, it’s the detail that initially absorbs the viewer, with all the fantastic pomp and propriety observed with some jocularity. At first one fears a broad caricature is afoot, with each and every British grandee depicted as a toffee-nosed buffoon. But Stephen Frears is a smarter director than that. The queen herself remains out of sight, invisible amongst the pageantry. And even when she is unceremoniously hoisted out of bed, her face is obscured. When, finally, the monarch comes into full view, we share the vision with the other protagonist of our story, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a humble clerk from Uttar Pradesh. Instructed on royal protocol to within an inch of his life, he nonetheless steals a glance at the sovereign visage – and a connection is made.

 

Much like the gillie John Brown, who became Queen Victoria’s trusted companion and the subject of John Madden’s Mrs Brown, so Abdul Karim is accepted into the queen’s affections and a friendship is born. However, unlike Brown, Abdul is a Muslim, and although Victoria is the Empress of India, a racism bristles in her household. Nonetheless, the queen becomes fascinated by all things Indian and as she learns of exotic cuisine and such strange fruit as mango, she experiences a new lease of life.

 

Victoria and Abdul proves timely on a number of levels. For one, there’s the testy Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard, brilliantly cast against type) who, in exasperation at his mother’s sudden rebirth, mutters loudly, “I thought she was dying!” And then there’s the entrenched Islamophobia amongst the queen’s inner circle, not least a befuddled Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). If much of this begins to segue into bedroom farce, Dame Judi grounds it in an emotional honesty that is at once deeply moving and highly entertaining. Perhaps her greatest moment arrives with Victoria’s self-effacing monologue near the end, much along the lines of Elizabeth I’s real-life speech, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman…” Here, though, Queen Victoria talks about her morbid obesity and collapsed uterus.

 

It’s an engaging, timely tale of compassion, old age, imperial bombast and skulduggery and, according to the opening caption, most of it is based on real events.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Paul Higgins, Robin Soans, Julian Wadham, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon, Ruth McCabe.

 

Dir Stephen Frears, Pro Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron and Tracey Seaward, Screenplay Lee Hall, Ph Danny Cohen, Pro Des Alan MacDonald, Ed Melanie Ann Oliver, Music Thomas Newman, Costumes Consolata Boyle.

 

BBC Films/Perfect World Pictures/Working Title Films/Cross Street Films-Universal Pictures.

111 mins. UK/USA. 2017. Rel: 15 September 2017. Cert. PG.