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Saturday, 30 September 2017

Victoria & Abdul

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Stephen Frears.

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar.

The reboot of As Time Goes By had taken a different tack.
The pairing of director Stephen Frears and Judi Dench in a film about British royalty seemed inevitable (with the benefit of hindsight).

Frears was Oscar-nominated for the excellent The Queen (and worked with Dench on Philomena), while Dench has played Queen Victoria (in Mrs Brown) and Queen Elizabeth I (in Shakespeare In Love), attracting award attention both times.

Their powers combine in Victoria & Abdul, a sorta-sequel to Mrs Brown, with Dench back as Queen Victoria, this time sharing a "special friendship" with a humble Indian Muslim man named Abdul Karim.

Abdul (Fazal) was only meant to help present a coin to the Queen, but ended up becoming a servant, confidant, and teacher to Victoria - something that caused considerable friction among the royal household.


It's this friction that creates the central spark of Victoria & Abdul. After starting with a whimsical and lightly comedic tone, aided by the presence of Akhtar as Abdul's fellow fish-out-of-water, the film gets progressively darker and more serious. As a result it gets more interesting too. The first half runs too close to caricature and stereotype sometimes, and while the latter half can get a touch melodramatic the film steadily improves and engrosses as it progresses.

Dench owns this from the minute she appears on screen. She gives Queen Victoria a studied depth, reminding us that the Queen was a real person and not just a figurehead. In one fascinating (if slightly contrived) rant, she lays out the many flaws of Victoria (before pointing out that she is not insane) and its a key example of the film's attempts to paint the Queen as a complex human being, who mourns, laughs, snores, and wonders what the point of it all is.

Humanising the Queen is a key theme of Victoria & Abdul, but so is tolerance. As much as Dench rules supreme here, it's as much a film about Abdul Karim as it is Queen Victoria. It's impossible to do something artistic and creative involving Muslims without it becoming political these days, but the film quietly drives its points home about prejudice and acceptance, making this century-old tale pertinent and timely.

Surrounding the magnificent Dench is a strong cast, led by Fazal, who does a fine job. Akhtar gets some great quips and it would have been nice to see more of his character, while the royal household is filled with solid assistance from Izzard as the soon-to-be King Edward VII and the late Tim Pigott-Smith as house head Sir Henry Ponsonby.

Beautifully shot, Victoria & Abdul is an interesting look at a strange piece of royal miscellanea, and well worth watching for another regal turn from Dench.

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