Judi Dench is a national treasure.
Not our nation, true. But England must be so happy to claim her. Who better to portray Queen Victoria, to embody an iconic ruler with earthiness and spunk, even well into her dotage? She’s played Victoria before, after all, in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown.”
She returns to the role, and how, in “Victoria and Abdul,” based on the true story of Victoria’s late-in-life friendship with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian Muslim. Their relationship that bedevils the royal court, a side effect the queen especially seems to enjoy.
It’s a fascinating story with particular contemporary relevance.
And it should be better. Director Stephen Frears rightfully showcases Dench, and she is, simply, great. But he and writer Lee Hall shortchange Abdul, making him not a caricature, but more of an outline of a character. It’s clear from the soft-focus treatment of the script that there’s a meatier story here, one we leave hungry for.
Abdul is a clerk in Agra when the movie begins, chosen nearly at random (mostly he’s tall enough) to take a coin minted in India in the queen’s honor and present it to her in England.
This is to occur at a royal luncheon, which Frears plays for comedy and mostly succeeds. Everything revolves around the queen. When she sits, everyone sits. When she slurps her soup like a hungry glutton and finishes it almost before everyone else is served, off goes everyone’s soup.
If she falls asleep during lunch, well, quiet, please, so as not to wake her.
Abdul and a sidekick are presented with a laundry list of ironclad rules about when to make eye contact (never, ever), when to turn your back to her majesty (ditto), etc. Abdul promptly ignores them, going so far as to kiss the queen’s foot, to everyone’s horror.
Everyone except the queen. She loves the attention, and thus begins an unlikely platonic relationship in which Abdul becomes her Munshi (a teacher), teaching her much about India, one of her colonies but one about which she knows nearly nothing. (The procurement of a mango becomes a kind of fruit-themed Holy Grail.)
Dench plays Victoria as voraciously curious. She even learns to read and write in Urdu.
Imagine how that goes over. The servants and court are horrified, especially Bertie, the Prince of Wales, next in line for the throne and impatient to get there, and Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). Bertie helps launch a kind of smear campaign against Abdul.
Nothing sticks, not even the discovery that Abdul is “riddled” with gonorrhea. The queen brushes it off, which is her royal prerogative.
Unfortunately, so does Frears. It’s emblematic of all the discoveries the queen, and by extension the audience, make about Abdul. There’s more there, but we aren’t seeing it.
The bigotry and racism is appalling, of course, and sadly easier to imagine than ever. Victoria rises above it, taking great delight in antagonizing her underlings (at least until a kind of palace coup is attempted, and we see the steely side of the queen, a most-welcome occurrence.)
But she also genuinely likes Abdul’s company. While he certainly treats the queen with respect, he does not constantly genuflect before her. Instead he treats her like a person – a person of unimaginable power and station, to be sure. But a person nonetheless. And it is clear that she is starved for just such treatment.
Not to belabor the point, but Dench is amazing. Her performance, breathing vitality into a tired, bored royal nearing the end of her life and not sorry to be there, captivates throughout. “Victoria and Abdul” is not a great movie, but it is a decent one with a great performance at its heart.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
Focus Features presents a film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Lee Hall, based on the book by Shrabani Basu. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic elements and language). Running time: 112 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.