Well, here’s another reason to be thankful for the presence of Judi Dench. This is her second portrayal of Queen Victoria. The other was the excellent Mrs. Brown in 1997, in which she befriends one of her servants.
In Victoria & Abdul, Victoria is older (near 70) and our first view of her betrays her age. She has been widowed for almost 30 years. The depiction of how her staff of dressers (about a dozen of them) have to raise her from her bed each morning to start her day leaves no doubt of her fading energy.
She wolfs her meals, forcing her guests to eat fast or lose the chance to continue. And between the entrée and dessert, she usually dozes off, even if there are several dozen guests at the table. Affairs of state are mostly handled by her staff of English aristocrats. Victoria & Abdul takes place during Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.
In India, a pair of men are chosen to go to London to present the queen with a tribute — a valuable gold Indian coin. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is chosen because he is tall and handsome. The other is a much shorter man, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar); he was selected because the tallest man in his group has fallen ill.
As they approach the queen to present their gift, they are strongly admonished not to make eye contact with her. Abdul can’t resist. Victoria seems pleased and returns a smile. They become friendly as she sees that Abdul is a cultured well-educated man. Victoria, who bears the title Empress of India, has never been there.
She has Abdul teaching her the languages and customs of his homeland. And they become close friends and confidantes. It is all very distressing to her official, titled associates, from her sons to the prime minister, etc.
To them, Indians are inferior people. Victoria resists their attempts to oust Abdul. She dismisses accounts of negative episodes in Abdul’s background. He is her munshi (teacher) and that is that! Those scenes show Dench at her best.
The character of Abdul is effective but rather flat. He correctly plays a subservient role to the queen, but we never know much about his real personality.
The other principal players are among well-known actors and they are all convincingly portrayed as unhappy, racist royalists. The cinematography is outstanding, showing the fields and gardens of Scotland and England. I was awed by the settings (often in real castles) and especially the costumery. All beautifully done.
Victoria & Abdul will not have you on the edge of your seat, but it is a very interesting story and movie. The title screen indicates it is a true story “almost.” Whatever that means, Victoria & Abdul is a good movie, worth seeing, especially for Ms. Dench.
Victoria & Abdul is at Harkins Sedona 6 Theater.