Queen Victoria lived long and lonely enough to fill two movies, both starring Judi Dench, each with distinct approaches to the monarch's widowed years.
Twenty years ago, Mrs. Brown earned Dench an Oscar nomination in a traditionally stiff-upper-lip production. She's in contention again for Victoria & Abdul, set nearly as many years in the queen's future. It's a delightful piece of found history, thematically similar to Mrs. Brown yet tonally different.
In both cases, the Queen finds friendship with a servant, rebuking family and fawners, the power vultures expecting her to die any moment. Her grief in Mrs. Brown was more recent, so somberness was in character. Her husband has been dead 30 years when Victoria meets Abdul Karim, an Indian clerk who becomes her last trusted friend.
Director Stephen Frears brings a light touch to material unknown until 2010 when Karim's private records, including photographs with Victoria, were discovered. He was sent by chance to England to present the queen with a bauble from her then-colony. Frears' movie suggests with sly humor how they became close and whose feathers were ruffled by this commoner's intrusion.
Abdul is played by Ali Fazal, a Bollywood charmer more than ready for his Hollywood closeup. It's a measure of his performance (or perhaps Lee Hall's untidy screenplay) that we're not always sure if Abdul adores his queen or if he's opportunistic like next-in-line son Bertie (Eddie Izzard). Doubts are cast on Abdul's intentions that aren't entirely cleared up, but Fazal makes us believe the best.
Hall's script is peppered with empire protocol spoofery: Abdul's traditional garb is given a sash to "look Indian," and a doctor prescribes for the "royal colon." Bertie accuses his mother of treating Abdul like family: "No, I like Abdul," she snaps. Victoria is alleged to be a scarfing eater and everyone at the banquet table had better keep up. If the gags about snooty behavior amuse then Abdul's hangdog assistant (Adeel Akhtar) certainly will.
Frears' movie turns serious when it counts, leading Victoria twice to cultural awareness, each an example for today. The first is Abdul's poetic descriptions of the country Victoria rules but will never visit, and lessons in writing and speaking Urdu, delighting the queen. She invites his wife and mother-in-law to live at the palace, curious about their burqas. Then the disclosure that he's a Muslim, with violent history threatening their bond. Hall's screenplay papers over the rift, making their now more important than then.
Victoria & Abdul is a small tale well told, a modest historical biopic allowing Dench a remarkable encore. Paraphrasing another British icon, Herman's Hermits: Mrs. Brown, you've got a lovely sequel.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.