Anyone setting out to make a film about Queen Victoria in her final years, weary of life but still imperious, would be foolish to look beyond Judi Dench for the lead role. At the age of 82, the Dame remains arguably Britain’s most formidable actress – and of course she has history with this particular character, having played the monarch to great effect 20 years ago in Mrs. Brown.
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Director Stephen Frears has worked with Dame Judi before (most recently in Philomena) and is canny enough to know a winning combination when he sees one. It must be said that his new film Victoria and Abdul carries several echoes of Mrs. Brown, including its central plot: the Queen’s unhappiness is lifted by the arrival in her life of a humble but sincerely outspoken man, several notches below her in the social hierarchy.
The lowly servant in this case is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome, serious-minded young Muslim clerk, despatched from India to present Her Majesty with a ceremonial coin to mark her golden jubilee. Before departing, his superiors coach him about suitable behaviour at court – the cardinal rule is never to meet Victoria’s gaze. Guess whether he obeys.
By this time, the queen has been established as a lonely woman wearied by her life and by the infuriating degree of protocol that surrounds her every move: courtiers earnestly bowing to accommodate her every wish. In one hugely telling scene, she sits down to a lunch surrounded by the usual displays of pomp, and starts wolfing her food with no hint of pleasure (not all her lunch reaches her mouth) before falling asleep at the table.
But the arrival of Abdul Karim lightens up her life. On presenting her with the coin, he does indeed make eye contact, and immediately she announces she is feeling better. Just one look, that’s all it took.
Charmed by him, she takes him for long chatty walks, on which he teaches her about his country – its food, its culture, its sheer otherness. Predictably, this infuriates Victoria’s retinue (just as John Brown had done). It doesn’t help that Abdul is Indian, of all things, and thus wholly unsuitable to win the Queen’s attentions and approval.
Yet these snubbed characters provide fine entertainment with their outraged, scowling dismay. Eddie Izzard offers a different kind of performance as Bertie, later to become Edward VII. The sadly missed Tim Pigott-Smith is his equal as the queen’s private secretary.
Screenwriter Lee Hall has played around with history a little, setting these events in the last two years of Victoria’s life to heighten the dramatic stakes. (In fact, Abdul arrived in England 12 years earlier.) Yet this dramatic licence does little to diminish the appeal of a story that feels fanciful in the first place.
If Victoria and Abdul doesn’t quite match Mrs. Brown, it’s because Abdul himself is a one-dimensional character. Fazal, with his doe-eyed gaze, is an attractive actor, but there’s a sense that Abdul’s relationship to the monarch can only be subservient. He will never stand up to her as Billy Connolly’s John Brown sometimes did.
Still, the film’s saving grace is Judi Dench, who is in quite astonishing form. Her portrayal of Victoria evokes sympathy, yet on occasions she positively blazes with indignation. No-one could have carried this film with the authority of this truly great actress.
And since Mrs. Brown two decades ago, she has lost none of her ability to deliver a withering putdown with just the right degree of hauteur. After Abdul tells her of the pleasures of mangoes, she wants to try one herself. “But they only grow in India,” a courtier tells her. “Well, I’m the empress of India,” she snaps. “So have one sent.” It’s a riposte that could have been written specifically with Dame Judi in mind.
Read our interview with Dame Judi Dench in the September 2017 issue of Saga Magazine.