James Barrie defined the word ‘charm’ by writing, “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.” Victoria & Abdul has it in spades, thanks in large part to the inimitable Judi Dench. Some older actors coast on the good will they have accumulated with audiences over the years, but this is not a “cute” performance. Playing Queen Victoria at age 81, she brings to life a weary monarch who is bored with her routine. She hates the protocol of her household and consequently does as she pleases. When a handsome young Indian visitor (Ali Fazal) catches her eye she pounces: here is a breath of fresh air in a life that has gone stale, a man who can teach her new ideas and even a new language. Since the loss of her husband decades ago and her intimate Mr. Brown she has been desperately lonely. Abdul can fill that void and be her friend.
Screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Eliot, The War Horse) was a perfect choice to adapt Shrabani Basu’s book, which revealed the story of Abdul Ma in 2010. Hall is enough of a traditionalist to respect the heritage of Victoria without being straitjacketed by it—which might also be said of director Stephen Frears. The film is uncommonly handsome in its period detail but never seems to be showing off its settings and costumes. The pomp of royal life is punctured more than once: in a hilarious opening banquet scene, Victoria scarfs down her food so quickly that the servants are obliged to remove half-eaten dishes from all of her guests in unison. Later, a picnic outside Balmoral Castle is dashed by freezing weather and unexpected rain, leaving Victoria’s party drenched. Simon Callow contributes an amusing cameo as opera composer Giacomo Puccini, who bellows one of his latest arias, to the displeasure of the Queen.
Cynics will complain that Victoria & Abdul turns a blind eye to the colonialism of the era, but I think it’s fairly clear how the English court regards its Indian visitor and his countrymen in general. That’s not the point or the purpose of this film. How true is the movie? Frears and Hall wink at us by opening their film with a title promising that it is based on true events, “mostly.”
This much is certain: watching Dame Judi is a sheer delight, indeed a privilege. She is surrounded by a cast befitting her presence, including the late Tim Piggott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, and Michael Gambon, with Adeel Akhtar as Abdul’s unhappy traveling companion. Let the nay-sayers carp as they will: I thoroughly enjoyed Victoria & Abdul.