Since Dame Judi Dench is acting royalty she has no trouble playing the hell out of Queen Victoria in her last years on the throne of England. Even better, she lets her ingrained mischief remove any hints of sanctimony from the old girl. Sadly, Victoria & Abdul, directed by the usually scrappy Stephen Frears from a dutiful script by Lee Hall, only sets one place at the table. Abdul Karim (Bollywood star Ali Fazal), the lowly Indian Muslim clerk who’s sent from Agra to England to present the Queen with a ceremonial coin, is an enigma too often painted here with a Hollywood brush. Fazal, recently seen in Furious 7, is an actor of considerable charm, but the script gives him precious little to play. Yes, he defies protocol by looking the Queen directly in the eye; he even kisses her foot. Though the royal household, headed by Henry Ponsberry (the late Tim Pigott-Smith in one of his final roles), is scandalized. Ditto her son and heir, Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard like a walking harumpf. No matter. The Queen is besotted. She labels Abdul her “munshi,” a beloved teacher.
But who is Abdul, really? The script is based on real events, to which the opening credits winkingly add, “mostly.” Don’t you hate qualifiers? Audiences will likely go along because Dench is such global treasure as an actress. Yet the film keeps pulling its punches about Abdul. There he is filling in the Queen about India, where she rules as empress but is forbidden to visit for fear of anti-colonialist reprisals. Abdul displays no personal hostility. Instead, he instructs her in the wonders of the Taj Mahal and mango chutney. He begs off teaching her to read and write in Hindu, preferring the more formal Urdu. And of the fatwa against Victoria declared by India’s Muslin leader, Abdul barely taken notice. Instead, the film focuses on the Queen’s white retinue being scandalized at being put on a lower level than this brown-skinned interloper. Her Royal Majesty is quick to dismiss their racist complaints. Even when Abdul is diagnosed with an STD, the Queen stays resolutely on Team Munshi.
Dench, of course, makes the Queen’s every move a pleasure to watch. She’s played Victoria before in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, when the younger, widowed Queen is brought out of her funk through her lively conversations with her late husband’s Scottish horseman, John Brown (Billy Connolly). In that way, Victoria & Abdul serves as a bookend to the Queen’s later life. Still, Abdul’s feelings and any hidden agendas remain frustratingly unexamined. Lucky for us, Dench and Frears pick up the slack and turn slim pickings into a fun time at the movies. But Victoria & Abdul could have been oh so much more.