‘Victoria & Abdul’
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard
Anglophiles will find a lot to love in “Victoria & Abdul,” a pleasant time that stands out thanks to Judi Dench in a return as Queen Victoria and a screenplay that delves into royal parlor games with glee.
There’s more to the story than that, of course. Stephen Frears’ film concerns the relationship between the queen and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian brought to England for Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1877 to serve her, but who ends up becoming close with the monarch, much to the consternation of everyone around them.
Based on a book by Shrabani Basu, it’s a travelogue of key moments during the years in which Abdul was a member of the court, depicting journeys to Scotland, Florence and elsewhere and a deepening bond over language lessons, strolls together and conversations about a subcontinent Victoria rules but hardly understands.
The scheming among the royal household and the tense internal politics surrounding the queen and the image of a friendship in direct conflict with Britain’s colonial might, provide the meat of the movie. They’re rendered in generally broad fashion, with fine actors such as Eddie Izzard as Victoria’s son Bertie, Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury and Olivia Williams as Jane Spencer, projecting a particular form of highly proper outrage.
Frears takes great pleasure in these moments, deriving a refined and distinguished comic flair out of the perplexed household. It makes the film consistently entertaining, but it can often play as exceedingly shallow.
Dench, who last played Victoria in the great 1997 film “Mrs. Brown,” is once again remarkable, bringing to vivid, relatable life one of history’s giants, even without much to work from in Fazal, who never summons the requisite depth to really sell this relationship.