Victoria & Abdul
Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon,
No matter what Stephen Frears delivers, it’s always going to be different ingredients on the same menu. Previous collaborations, “Philomena” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents”, suggest that Dame Judi Dench is heading towards an 8th Oscar nomination, and her third under Frears direction. Of course, this isn’t the first time Dench has played a Queen or even specifically Queen Victoria. All of that to say this, Frears and Dench are good together, but “Victoria & Abdul” seems familiar, like a filmmaker turning out films to fit a specific gap at the theater. It’s a feel-good movie, aimed directly at “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” crowd, and it’s got cheers, tears and laughs aplenty for the Hollywood Foreign Press to soil themselves over.
Abdul Karim (Fazel) has no idea when assisting a carpet maker in Agra, India with carpets to headed to London, that he would be invited to meet royalty. Queen Victoria (Dench) in her 80’s had all but settled into the twilight of her life. Eating and sleeping were the highlights of her day, until a tall and handsome Indian man arrived to jolt her back to life. “Terribly handsome,” is what she called him after their initial meeting. Karim is summoned back to Buckingham palace and over the course of a few weeks rises from a servant, to personal friend, and eventually her teacher. His presence, during a time of great stress between her country and the Muslim world infuriates the royal staff and advisors. None more so than her son, the future king (Izzard).
The screenplay is charming enough even for cynics, but it’s also predictable at nearly every turn.
There’s a history lesson in “Victoria & Abdul” somewhere, but Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott”, “War Horse”) keep the film perfectly wedged between a historical drama and a slapstick comedy. Pitch is something the Frears/Dench collaborations have a knack for. Once again there is a beautiful relationship between an older woman and a younger man, as seen in Philomena and last year’s “Florence Foster Jenkins”, also a Frears feature. Victoria calls herself a fat, silly old woman, but that’s what makes the audience love her. Dench’s specialty is balancing cantankerous nature with grandmotherly charm, even in the James Bond films. She’s lovely here, doing what she does best, and the audience delights when she raises her voice and throws things across the desk while shouting “I’m the Queen!”.
There will never be enough leading Judi Dench roles, because she is acting royalty and her entertainment value knows no end. Ali Fazal (“Furious 7”) is a perfectly charming co-lead, with enough chemistry to make our dame and the audiences swoon. Original this movie is not, as it takes great notes from the relationship between Blanchett’s Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh in “The Golden Age”, or even the timeless “Anna & the King”. The screenplay is charming enough even for cynics, but it’s also predictable at nearly every turn. Politics invade the third act, as they always do in these films, the comedy vanishes and things turn serious. There’s lots to learn in this cute movie that sheds light on the relationship between England and India. The script leaves questions about Karim, but chooses instead to focus on the woman that changed his life.
Dench/Frears land another charming and familiar crowd-pleaser exploring a cross cultural friendship.