Judi Dench is not quite a movie star—you won’t find her poster adorning the walls of any teenagers—but when she plays British royalty, she might as well be one. The cumulative power of her roles as Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love and Victoria in Mrs. Brown are on display in the opening of Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul. As we catch up with Victoria three decades after the events of Mrs. Brown, she is 81 years old and dying of loneliness. Her king passed away years earlier, and her middle-aged children mostly view her as a bother. So when a spark of friendship ignites between her and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian peasant brought to England to participate in a royal ceremony, she is eager to fan it into a flame.
Abdul stays on to be her servant, although he serves her more as a companion and a window to the outside world from which Victoria has been secluded for so long. As their friendship grows and she promotes him to more important positions on her staff, her family (represented by her eldest son, played impeccably by Eddie Izzard), her aides, and even the prime minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) become increasingly concerned about the message their closeness is sending to the world. The more they try to oust Abdul, however, the more agency Victoria seems to gain. Eventually, the old, wizened woman is transformed into something fierce. She becomes, in other words, a Judi Dench type, somehow both sassy and tender, and quick to reclaim her humanity from those who would marginalize her.
Unfortunately, this delightful star turn won’t be enough to save Victoria & Abdul. The first problem is its underlying politics. The film’s events could be read as a whitewashing or outright denial of the tragic realities of colonialism. The Indian peasant and the British monarch become friends. That’s nice, but what does it do for the millions in subjugation in his homeland? He has no heart for them, and neither does the film.
Those who dismiss the film based on this reading are well within their rights, but the severe lack of characterization the film gives to Abdul, a byproduct of its imperialist tendencies, is what really damns it. Although the story opens from Abdul’s perspective, we never see him with any depth. He smiles, laughs, and dances, and has zero inner life. His wife and mother, who Victoria retrieves from India to stay with her, do not receive a single line of dialogue. His name may be in the title, but Abdul’s only function in this story is to serve as the exotic catalyst for Victoria’s late-stage awakening. He teaches her Urdu and speaks of the beauty of his homeland. She responds by creating an exhibit of Indian art in Buckingham Palace and staging a play based on Muslim history. Apparently, Victoria was gaining spiritual fulfillment from Eastern mysticism long before The Beatles or Eat, Pray, Love came around.
Still, watching an actor of Dench’s skill and wisdom enact that journey is a cinematic gift that should not be dismissed. The script gives the actress three big speeches, and Frears—who has long since dispensed with the unpredictable idiosyncrasy of his early works like My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters—sticks to a safe formula: Put some pretty things in the background, like the baroque interior of palace or the wild moors of Scotland, place the camera in front of Dench, and let her devour each moment, line of dialogue, and passing glance. It’s a staid story, but her rich, lively performance almost saves it. She is deserving of our worship. All hail the Queen.
Victoria & Abdul opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.