UK Release Date: 15th September 2017
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Lee Hall
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Higgins, Michael Gambon
Synopsis: In the final years of her life, Queen Victoria forms a tender, platonic relationship with an Indian servant, who becomes her spiritual teacher as she learns about other cultures.
Stephen Frears can probably consider himself the master of movies that your Nan really likes. The director of awards-grabbing British fare like Philomena and The Queen is just a Marigold Hotel movie away from netting the grey pound full house. His latest film is another royal affair, with Victoria & Abdul documenting the unusual, platonic relationship that developed between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant at court in the final years of her time on the throne.
The Queen (Judi Dench) has sat on the throne for 50 years when she is introduced to Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), when he and another Indian visitor (Adeel Akhtar) present her with a coin commemorating her title as Empress of India. Victoria takes a liking to Abdul and soon begins spending time with him alone, where he teaches her Urdu to the disgust of those at court, including the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), private secretary Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) and royal physician Dr Reid (Paul Higgins).
Victoria & Abdul is a nice, sweet-natured film. It can be filed away with all of the other gentle, Sunday afternoon fare designed to make its money at midweek screenings where you get a cup of tea and a biscuit with your ticket. While scary clowns and A-listers flying planes cater to the blockbuster crowd, this is some nice counter-programming for the older, quieter end of the market. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because this is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a few hours at the multiplex.
Judi Dench gives a wonderfully curmudgeonly turn as Queen Victoria, reprising the role she first played in 1997 film Mrs Brown with prickly aplomb. She wraps her tongue around the acerbic wit of Lee Hall’s script, but is equally capable of bringing her impeccable gravitas to the more tender, emotional moments. In lesser hands, the material could have been unbearably saccharine, but Dench and Bollywood star Ali Fazal are able to sell the relationship as something deeply human and driven by intrigue and curiosity.
In the world of Brexit and divisive right-wing politics, there’s something pleasingly tolerant about Victoria & Abdul. This is a film that, with a smattering of revisionist history, portrays Queen Victoria as being open to other cultures and even defending Abdul against the almost pantomime villainy of her court. Eddie Izzard does solid work as manipulative Prince of Wales, Bertie, but it’s In the Loop standout Paul Higgins who gets the best of the supporting turns. Few could deliver the line “I did not do seven years at Edinburgh University to look at Indian dicks” with as much delightful rage.
Unfortunately, this is a film torpedoed by its desire not just to work as a middle of the road story, but to get out and actually measure the road to ensure it’s precisely in the centre. It doesn’t take a single risk, but excels as a selection of low-hanging punchlines delivered via an ensemble of impressive performances from actors who are enjoying themselves in roles that allow them to let loose in fancy clothing. It also inspired one of the best videos in the history of the internet, so it’s good with me.
Pop or Poop?
Judi Dench’s smart, prickly central performance is an undoubted highlight of sweet period drama Victoria & Abdul. It’s a film that never raises the pulse of the audience at all, beyond a couple of giggles. Stephen Frears directs through a beige filter in order to create a film that is perfectly pleasant, but never anything more than that.
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