Stephen Frears reteams with his Philemona star Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul – a retelling of the true story of the friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian clerk – Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) who not only becomes her mentor but also her spiritual advisor and best friend.
The result is a humorous, sweet, if slight, film that becomes yet another showcase of the extraordinary and magnificent Judi Dench who, at the age 83, is still able to command the screen with such an astonishing presence that very few actors are capable of. In her new role as Queen Victoria, Dench brings wit, humor, vulnerability and depth to a character that could have easily slipped into caricature.
Things kick off in 1887, when a young Indian clerk travels from India to present a ceremonial medal as part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. An unprecedented and unlikely relationship starts and causes a fierce battle within the royal household and pits the Queen against the court and friends.
Taking a more comic approach to his other Judi Dench-starrer Philomena (2013), Frears opts for humor and melodrama to tell his story and explore questions of race, religion and power. Ultimately, the film presents a crowd-pleasing but overly-caricaturized and slight package that is entertaining, funny, engaging while not being entirely audacious nor groundbreaking. And that’s fine – after all it is the Judi Dench show and it passes with flying colors on that front.
Fears’ simple approach to the story makes the film a crowd-pleasing tale of friendship and finding happiness with those one can relate to despite differences in class or social background but where the film’s screenplay falters is the tone. While Lee Hall’s screenplay lets its story unfold in an amusing, accessible fashion, it could have used more nuance and less caricature.
The casting of Ali Fazal is part of the problem. Where Fazal does try to embody Abdul, he appears to be in a different film than Dench. He brings overly comedic tones to his scene with superficial delivery, while Dench beings the nuance and depth to her character. It’s a situation reminiscent of Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2015) where Adams and Waltz seemed to be in entirely different films – and that’s not due to experience but due to a different take on how the film should be.
Judi Dench lights up the screen with a beautiful performance that juggles several elements at once. In a way, Queen Victoria has a strong, steely presence that communicates power and control. Beneath that, lies a very lonely woman yearning for friendship and happiness. Dench captures the character’s contradictions masterfully and is able to take viewers inside Victoria’s soul to understand her troubles, frustrations and hopes. The role is a perfect showcase of Dench’s unique gift as an actress who can change tones in a single split second and transport users from vulnerability to strength to heartbreak. A remarkable Oscar-worthy performance by an actress still at the top of her game.
Featuring excellent costumes by Consolata Boyle, terrific music by Thomas Newman, superb production design by Alan MacDonald and vibrant cinematography by Danny Cohen, the film is beautifully made which is not surprising given all the talent involved.
Verdict: A sweet yet slight and caricature version of what could have been a more nuanced and incredibly moving story. Dench shines and brings a portrayal of a broken woman who is strong and powerful but she deserved a more ambitious, less superficial film.