If Dame Judi Dench was going to revisit one of her great roles in the twilight of her storied career, it had to be Queen Victoria.
Her take on the sad, autocratic, fat, lonely grump who ruled over the British Empire at its peak was a career highlight, showing the iconic queen’s vulnerable side in “Mrs. Brown.”
Recent scholarship about another particular friend of the widowed queen provided the inspiration for “Victoria & Abdul,” a send-up of Victorian conservatism that is “based on a true story — mostly.” And start to finish, it’s bloody delightful, a romp “mostly.”
As the ageing Victoria heads into her Golden Jubilee, the Empire’s rulers the The Raj (India) strike a commemorative coin. They press a tall, impressive-looking jail clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and a grumpier, shorter draftee (Adeel Akhtar) into service to deliver it to her as a grand royal banquet.
Their escort, Mr. Bigge (Robin Soans) and the various royal decorum enforcers who instruct them have one over-riding edict. “You must not look her in the eye.”
Abdul does, and gives her a smile. And thus does a great little-known friendship between ruler and servant begin.
The Empress of India has found her biggest Muslim fan, and Abdul, with his musical accent and tales of the lost love that inspired the Taj Mahal, the glories of Indian architecture and the opulence of the subcontinent’s rulers, enchants her.
Which troubles, then enrages her Head of the Royal Household (the slack-jawed Tim Pigott-Smith) and her ageing wastrel of an heir apparent, Bertie (a marvelously blustering Eddie Izzard). The insults, veiled and unveiled racism of one and all (Olivia Williams is Lady Churchill, no “lady” at all) pour forth.
There are mixed signals, confused intentions all around. And the source of it all is her “most obedient servant,” her sounding board, the man who would teach her Urdu “because Hindi is of the lower classes,” her instructor in the Koran.
It’s delightful to think of this dowdy old woman being this curious about the world into her dotage, determined to learn something of her Empire through a man who only wants to please her, to brighten her days. A weary monarch tired of life and power learns something of what life is all about from this humble man of India — “service.”
And Abdul and his reluctant sidekick Muhammad (Akhtar)?
“How do you like your new Scottish clothes?”
“They’re very scratchy, ma’am.”
“Everything in Scotland is scratchy.
Director Stephen Frears (“Philomena,” “The Queen”) gives Dench’s return to the role of Victoria a splendid build-up. She’s ancient, doddering, has to be helped out of bed, dressed and marched through every dreary day of her Jubilee. She speed-slurps her soup and sprints through meals, a near slob whose dinner guests must likewise race to polish off a course before she does, lest they leave the table hungry.
“Victoria & Abdul” spares no expense in peopling the glorious settings of Empire, from Windsor Castle to Balmoral to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight with legions of red-coated servants and scores of over-dressed guests at court. It’s a gorgeously detailed look at the empty opulence of an era.
Dench, who spoke of retirement a couple of years back (she’s going blind), manages some lovely moments of empathy, outrage and wounded vulnerability. Surrounding her with the likes of Michael Gambon (her prime minister, Lord Salisbury) is only her due.
Fazal’s Abdul is less fully drawn in. The character can seem opportunistic, vain, a bit full of himself as he rises in the ranks thanks to his student’s patronage. He glories in his uniforms, with the gold brocade “VR” (Victoria Regina) embroidered upon his chest. He is a Muslim eager for acceptance in the modern West.
But Fazal rarely has more to play than guileless. For a movie about racism, repression and class distinction, “passive” is a troubling take on the character. It never quite crosses over into patronizing, however. The Lee Hall script gives the whole picture the air of a comical “sick burn” of colonialism and ethnocentrism, and leaves all the British-hating fury to Muhammad, which tends to balance things out.
The picture remembers “Mrs. Brown,” but tilts towards “The King & I” in its light tone and jolly befuddlement. Perhaps that’s all we’re meant to take from this post-Brexit jab at British racism, that cultural exchanges, not cultural clashes, are how we grow and come to know those we dismiss, resent or fear.
Either way, this comical poke at the people who invented most of the world’s racial slurs could not have come at a better time, for Britain and for the Queen of Actresses, Dame Judi, back to playing one of her greatest roles and managing it, as always, with acrid wit and style.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Adeel Akhtar
Credits: Directed by Stephen Frears, script by Lee Hall, based on the Shrabani Basu book. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:52