Dench shines in an uneven ‘Victoria and Abdul’

“Victoria and Abdul” – In 1887, Abdul Karim’s (Ali Fazal) life dramatically changed.  A British officer selects him to present a coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) at Buckingham Palace.  Along with another local from Agra, India – Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) – Abdul sets sail for England for a ceremonial event, which seems like an awfully long journey for just a three-minute role during a royal dinner, but when in Rome….err, London.

While on the palace grounds, a few officials specifically instruct the two newcomers to avoid looking into the queen’s eyes during the dinner, but Abdul cannot help himself, and she catches his gaze and smile.  They connect for only a few seconds, but Queen Victoria wishes to know more about this unknown man who presented her with a gift from India.   After several exclusive meetings, Abdul soon becomes the queen’s friend, confident and eventually, teacher (or her munshi), as she is eager to learn about a new culture, language and the man himself.

Director Stephen Frears (“The Grifters” (1990), “High Fidelity” (2000), “Philomena” (2013)) tells the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, one that was somewhat lost in time until a very recent discovery (2010) of Abdul’s journals.  Frears – who is no stranger to comedy – creates a light and airy story, built on a stranger in a strange land foundation.  In several very amusing sequences, the film showcases the overdone formalities of regal pomp and circumstance, and although Frears presents these scenes as matter-of-fact to anyone within eyeshot, the audience is treated to Mohammed and Abdul’s new perspectives of the royal customs.  Mohammed’s especially.  Akhtar – who played a terrific supporting role as a taunting older brother in “The Big Sick” (2017) – brings his comedic gifts to “Victoria and Abdul” as well.

Mohammed hilariously complains about the English weather, the physical consistency of a gelatin dessert and the awkward fact that two people are presenting just one coin to the queen.  Dench dives into some big laughs too, as Queen Victoria frequently doses off, finds her daily rituals utterly boring and admits that everything – not just clothing – in Scotland is scratchy.   The queen enjoyably scratches at a newly rediscovered itch to learn, as her transformation from her joyless actuality to a blissful one places a contagious smile on her face and the audience’s.

Frears jams and packs many of these wonderful moments during the film’s whimsical first hour, and Akhtar, Dench and some clever visuals strap us into a fun movie, but the director does warn us of murkier times ahead with occasional racist quips or attitudes from the Brits towards the new visitors.

Unfortunately, the film takes a sizable tonal shift in the second hour.  Queen Victoria is forced to repeatedly justify Abdul’s presence in her kingdom in the face of jealous and/or racist attitudes from Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), her royal subjects and family members, including the most villainous of the bunch, her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard).

The caustic fight turns nasty and delves in dirty tricks, and the film’s dramatic shift feels one dimensional and ham-handed with no room for nuance.  Worse yet, Abdul’s character is barely explored.  Dench – of course – garners the opportunity to expand upon the queen’s colorful journey towards new enlightenment during her twilight years, but the narrative presents Abdul with one constant note as a humble servant, one with little exposition into his thoughts and feelings.  Now, perhaps Frears and/or writer Lee Hall did not wish to take creative license, but as a movie, it feels like an incomplete story.

Still, high production values and two stand out performances from Dench and Akhtar offer a worthwhile experience, but this critic wishes that “Victoria and Abdul” incorporated subtler shades of connective tissue.

⭐⭐ 1/2  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits: Focus Features

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