During my viewing of “Victoria & Abdul”, I could not help but think about what a remarkable movie acting career Judi Dench has built during last 23 years. When she played James Bond’s direct boss in “GoldenEye” (1995), she was already over 60 at that time, but this old British actress who had been mainly known for her significant stage career instantly captured our attention, and that was just the beginning for her unlikely stardom in movie business. Two years later, she received her first Oscar nomination for playing Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997) and then won an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) in the very next year, and she has kept going as your average British trouper while also receiving no less than five subsequent Oscar nominations.
Although she is now over 80 and recently had her 83th birthday in last year, Dench is still active as usual, and “Victoria & Abdul”, which is a sort of sequel to “Mrs. Brown”, shows that she has not lost any of her talent yet. As Queen Victoria, she is simply fun and engaging in her every moment in the film, and her good acting compensates for a number of notable flaws in the film.
The movie opens in 1887, which is not long after the story of “Mrs. Brown” ends. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Indian Muslim clerk living in Agra, India, happens to be selected as one of two local servants who will deliver a ceremonial gold coin to Queen Victoria in London, and he and the other servant, named Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), are soon sent to Britain as receiving some education on how properly they should behave in front of the queen and other very important figures around her.
When they are finally presented to the queen along with that ceremonial coin, Abdul inadvertently does a little transgression. He happens to look directly at the queen shortly after presenting the coin to her, and, instead of feeling violated or insulted, the queen is rather amused by this because she has been tired of being fawned upon by many people around her including Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). She orders that Abdul and Mohammed should serve her at the upcoming luncheon, and Abdul goes further when he presents a dessert to the queen along with his colleague. Not only he kneels right in front of the queen, but also he kisses her shoe, and everyone around the queen is certainly caught off guard by this bold act of his.
Becoming more curious about Abdul, Victoria instructs Abdul and Mohammed to stay longer around her. While Mohammed is not that pleased about this as he does not like the cold weather in Britain, Abdul is delighted to see more of the queen, and Victoria is eager to learn more about Adbul and India. Besides teaching her Urdu, he tells her a lot about the Qur’an and the history of India, and the queen comes to enjoy more of his companionship as days goes by. To her, Abdul is another precious friend/servant in her life after John Brown, whose close relationship with her is dramatized well in “Mrs. Brown”, and she even takes him to her own private place in a rural area at one point.
Of course, Prince of Wales and many other people in the court including the queen’s secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) and the queen’s personal doctor Sir James Reid (Paul Higgins) are not amused by this change much. They become determined to do everything they can do for stopping the growing relationship between Victoria and Abdul, but, not so surprisingly, they soon come to face a dead end. Even though she feels disappointed and disillusioned when she later comes to learn of a few things Abdul did not tell her in advance, she chooses to stand by him nonetheless, and she makes it quite clear to her son and others when they blatantly try to pressure her into letting Abdul go.
The screenplay by Lee Hall, which is based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, is often too heavy-handed around this part, but it gives Dench several juicy scenes at least, and she nails them all with intelligence and authority. When the camera closely looks at her face during one particular scene, she firmly holds our attention as gradually revealing her character’s indomitable spirit on the screen, and that moment surely confirms to us again that she is indeed a great actress to behold.
Compared to Dench’s commanding acting, her co-star Ali Fazal looks bland in his earnest but ultimately colorless performance, and that is the main weak point of the movie. As being monotonously sincere and decent, his character is frequently overshadowed by not only Dench’s character but also other supporting characters in the film, who are broad but more colorful than his character in comparison. Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Higgins, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Simon Callow, and Michael Gambon do as much as they can with their caricature characters, and they thankfully provide some extra fun whenever that is necessary for us.
“Victoria & Abdul” is directed by Stephen Frears, who previously collaborated with Dench in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (2005) and “Philomena” (2013). Under his competent direction, the movie mostly works as a well-made period drama, but I must point out that the lightweight treatment of its fascinating historical subject is rather disappointing at times. Anyway, the movie is still an interesting companion piece to “Mrs. Brown” at least, and it is certainly worthwhile to watch Dench’s another solid performance. According to IMDB, she is still working even at this point, and I hope she will abide with us as long as she can.