Director Stephen Frears’ historical comedy-drama “Victoria & Abdul” puts an alarmingly light spin on the, er, complicated relationship between 19th-century Great Britain and its colonies — and would be easily dismissed as period puffery if not for a moving performance by Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.
It’s not the first time Dame Judi has played the long-reigning monarch, having portrayed her in the 1997 drama “Mrs. Brown.” In both movies, the focus is on Victoria’s relationship with a male companion after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, and the tut-tutting responses of her household staff and her son the Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VII after Victoria’s death in 1901).
The key difference, besides Victoria being in her 70s through most of this story, is that the companion in question was Abdul Karim (played by Ali Fazal), a Muslim from India. Abdul arrives in the queen’s court in 1887, one of two Indian men chosen to carry a token gift from India, a colony of which the queen was dubbed empress a decade before. Abdul and his colleague Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) become servants to Victoria — and Abdul makes an impression on the lonely old monarch.
In short order, he begins to teach her how to write and speak in Urdu and gives her a window of the culture of India. He becomes her constant companion, and she even gives him a respectful pet name: “Munchi,” meaning “teacher.”
Abdul’s presence rankles Victoria’s servants, notably the very proper head of household, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Piggot-Smith, who died in April), and her physician, Dr. Reid (Paul Higgins). Abdul also draws the ire of Victoria’s son and heir, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who can barely contain his bigoted contempt for this dark-skinned interloper.
Frears — who previously worked with Dench on “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (2005) and “Philomena” (2013) — and screenwriter Lee Hall (adapting the book by journalist and author Shrabani Basu) focus largely on the growing bond between the queen and her Munchi. The script only skims lightly over the bigotry and lack of respect afforded Abdul, and by extension India, which feels like a lost opportunity to explore the love-hate relationship between colonizer and colonized.
Fazal, a Bollywood star who appeared in “Furious 7,” gives a soulful performance as the fish-out-of-water Abdul. What anchors “Victoria & Abdul” is Dench’s performance, as she channels the many character traits — dignity, whimsy, impertinence and crushing solitude — that made Victoria the monarch she was.
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Victoria & Abdul
Dame Judi Dench and Bollywood star Ali Fazal star in this historical drama about an unusual relationship between the queen of England and an Indian servant.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 6.
Rating • PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language.
Running time • 103 minutes.