Judi Dench saves flimsy costume drama 'Victoria and Abdul'

We love Dame Judi Dench because of her fearless and versatile ability to portray any aspect of the human condition.

Including, it can now be said, constipation.

This is her character’s initial affliction in Victoria and Abdul, in which she plays Queen Victoria in her not-so-golden years, looking miserable in what amounts to a palatial version of assisted living. She is old, lonely, ornery, and pestered by staff concerned that she hasn’t had a royal bowel movement in a worrisomely long time (no word on whether she has taken the “royal wee”).

This all lends itself to jokes, and the movie makes a few of its own, but there is a necessary candor in all of this. Dench (and director Stephen Frears) establish Victoria in the prologue as an elderly woman who is life-threateningly bored. It’s a problem for any octogenarian, but is perhaps dangerous in the monarch of a powerful nation.

Victoria needs a spark, and it arrives,  unexpectedly, in the form of Abdul Karim (Bollywood star Ali Fazal). who is selected at random and brought halfway around the world to London to present the queen with a ceremonial Indian bauble, a sign of tribute from a colonial territory of which she knows little.

She decides she’d like to know more, especially after the tall, handsome, and charming fellow impulsively drops to his knees and kisses her feet, a look that she finds both alarming and, if Dench’s mischievous and expressive eyes can be deciphered, rather invigorating.

So commences their interesting (and mostly fact-based) friendship. It’s rejuvenating to the queen, but alarming to her staff, in part because Abdul’s growing (platonic) intimacy with Victoria disrupts hierarchy and protocol, in part because they’re snobby and insular. (They refer to Abdul as the Hindu and realize only much later he’s actually Muslim.)

To Victoria, however, he’s almost literally a lifesaver. His tutorials on the language and culture of India have her synapses and neural pathways firing again. The more she learns from Abdul, the better she feels. The better she feels, the more she wants to learn, etc. For Dench, it’s a fastball over the plate — or whatever the cricket equivalent is.

Eventually Victoria calls him “Mushi” (teacher) and elevates him to the rank of special adviser, at which point Abdul becomes more than a curiosity. To toadies and politicians, he becomes a potential threat. Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), in line for the throne, sizes Abdul up as an enemy and political foe.

Frears keeps most of this in the realm of comedy — scandalized aristocrats are satirized for their cartoon bigotry (one of these, Olivia Williams, is a very fine actress who is usually given more to do). Izzard plays Bertie as a dolt and a reactionary boob, in line with the movie’s opinion of anti-immigrant sentiment in present-day Europe. To adhere to its own standards, Victoria & Abdul might have displayed more interest in Abdul’s character, who remains one-dimensional throughout.

Victoria & Abdul, though, is Dench’s show. She wrings dignity and humanity (and a good deal of comedy) from Lee Hall’s broadly drawn scenario, much as she did in this movie’s cross-cultural bookend, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.


Victoria & Abdul

    • Directed by Stephen Frears. With Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Victoria Williams, and Adeel Akhtar. Distributed by Focus Features.

    • Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.

  • Parents' guide: PG-13 (thematic elements and language)

  • Playing at: Ritz Five