Released: 15th September 2017
Directed By: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal
Reviewed By: Van Connor
You know we’re running perilously close to running out of monarchs for Judi Dench to play when she actually starts revisiting them, and, funnily enough, Victoria & Abdul does strangely serve as a would-be follow-up of sorts to John Madden’s 1997 Victoria tale Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. So much so, in fact, that it’s practically an “aw no, you didn’t” moment when Dench’s Queen Victoria passingly mentions Brown to her male companion of this latest chronicle, Ali Fazal’s wide-eyed Munshi, Abdul Karim.
Taking place decades on from the passing of Brown, an elderly Queen Victoria appears to have all but given up on life, auto-piloting her way through formal dinners and tending to affairs of state with only fleeting attention. It’s with the arrival of Indian servant Abdul, however, that the spark of life reignites within the raging monarch, and – through both their friendship and an exploration of Indian culture – Victoria discovers a new lease on life that triggers a jealousy and prejudicial sentiment among both her closest advisors and son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who’ll stop at nothing to get rid of Abdul at all costs.
Dench’s performance here hits precisely the notes you’d expect, with every inch the corresponding gravitas and power. Victoria’s initial transition from dead-behind-the-eyes Monarch to exuberant Queen, in particular, marks a wonderful transformation that could so easily have lost its effectiveness in less skilful hands, and yet, despite the novelty of Dench as any Queen having long worn off, her turn here is a very poised and engaging one that proves, more often than not, surprisingly charming.
Charming, meanwhile, is also the only word possible to describe the wide-eyed cheekiness Ali Fazal brings to the table, his Munshi so endearing that, even when the story calls for him to be less-than-forthright, his half-hearted justifications do play credibly and even sympathetically. A relative unknown outside of Bollywood, Fazal’s one heck of a find, and, as calling cards go, Victoria & Abdul hopefully won’t be the last we see of this delightful performer outside of his homeland and a fleeting henchman role in a Fast & Furious movie.
Perhaps the most fun to be had, though, comes courtesy of Eddie Izzard’s fabulously slimy Bertie, a role brought to brilliantly animated life by the cartoon-villainy that has so perfectly made up his comedic career all these years and serves him well in the story’s darker moments. And, make no mistake, Victoria & Abdul may indeed be charming as all hell and likely to have you grinning ear-to-ear for most of its runtime, but those darker moments are there, and they land with heft. Director Frears, mercifully, has honed his skilful handling of both comedy and drama over his career to know just how to laser focus the atmosphere needed for either eventuality, and, with Danny Cohen bringing a gorgeous visual palette to some already wonderful production design, the stage is set for a captivating exploration of a charming friendship.