Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Judi Dench is the only beacon of light in this dark and joyless tale

Friday, October 13, 2017



Wait. Haven't I seen this somewhere before? A widowed Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) develops an attachment to a man who is not of noble birth and whose down-to-earth (or just earthy) demeanor threatens the snobbish advisers and loathsome children that surround and stifle her. The more satisfaction she finds in the friendship, the more threatened her entourage feels.

No. That's Mrs. Brown. Another, and significantly superior, story with Judi Dench as Queen.

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It would be petty to dislike Victoria and Abdul merely on the grounds that it feels like it'd been done before, and better. Both tales are based on historical fact. Those of us who are fascinated by English history might hope to find these bookended tales — the first at the depth of Victoria's despair over the death of her husband, and this one toward the end of her life — shed light on the personality of a monarch who served so long but about whom many of us know so little. But where is that insight?

In place of a plot we have simply a narrative concerning Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who is selected (based strictly on the basis of his being tall) to travel from India to England to present the Queen with a commemorative coin during a Golden Jubilee fete. That goes OK, but something clicks between the two when they lock eyes in a ridiculously extended scene.

The misunderstandings, misrepresentations and intrigues that follow are individually involving but fail to sustain a message. Fazal is serviceable in a role that boxes him into a stereotype, but the rest of the cast is required to mug and bluster their way through the script. One feels almost obligated to recommend any film starring Judi Dench, so awesomely assured as an actor. Indeed, she takes a delicious turn at an speech that will no doubt be played at Oscar time.

But here's the problem. As my mouse was hovering over the checkboxes to characterize this one, choosing "Historical" was a no-brainer. But what else? A "Drama" or "Romance" or ... both? Or neither? Now it's a good thing when movies defy genre. But that's not what's going on here. It's OK if the filmmakers don't tell you how to feel. But they should at least give you enough insight to make up your own mind. Was the Queen just a silly old woman who developed inappropriate attachments? Or an exhausted monarch, surrounded by buffoons, who drew inspiration from men whose vigor and candor gave her inspiration?

If you're a fan of Judi Dench, you'll want to see this regardless. But the foggy narrative, and a lame attempt to make the Queen seem a tad more enlightened in an age of toxic colonialism, make Victoria and Abdul an overall joyless experience.


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