Were Judi Dench not so frustratingly exceptional in her second turn as the Queen of Britain and Empress of India, Victoria and Abdul might have just about gotten away with being a forgettable cinematic oddity. Unfortunately, for the film, Dench remains here impeachable as ever, effortlessly casting all that around her beneath the dustiest of shadows. Unable to come close to the talent it has secured, Victoria and Abdul is a great disappointment; a film with all of the potential but none of the ambition. It’s fine but that’s all.
Dench last played Queen Victoria exactly twenty years ago in John Madden’s Mrs Brown, a part for which the actress rightfully collected her fourth, of six, BAFTAs, and was offered the chance to spar with the coarser, ruddy talents of Billy Connolly. Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert, deceased two years then, remains a heavy presence on the ageing monarch twenty-four film years later. Brown too is four years to the ground and so it is with a heavy heart that Victoria weeps: ‘I’m so lonely. Everyone I’ve really loved has died and I go on and on’. It’s a moment of heart wrenching passion and burst of emotional spirit that is otherwise desperately lacking in this not-quite sequel.
Unlike in Mrs Brown, and perhaps with a rye awareness of the younger Ali Fazal being no Connolly in terms of dramatic gravitas, Victoria is slightly more akin to the second fiddle in Victoria and Abdul. It is with Abdul in Agra that Stephen Frears’ film, written by Lee Hall from the book by Sharbani Basu, opens and with him that the story closes after the Queen’s 1901 death. In effect: sidelined is a powerful story of the then longest-reining monarch of all time’s relationship with death, her Empire and subjects, for a lightweight would-be comedy about an Indian servant dropping out of his depth into the royal household.
To its defence, Victoria and Abdul is genuinely quite funny. Victoria, now ‘A fat, lame, silly, impotent, old woman’ (her words) and barrel-shaped at that, has to be rolled out of her bed in the morning, has no interest in dinner table decorum and is to regularly update her physician on the passage of her bowels. ‘We last moved on Saturday evening’ says the Queen. ’It is imperative your Majesty has a little roughage’ says her doctor.
Issues arise with the fact that such broad humour is all too frequently susceptible to silliness. Dench launching a whole profiterole into her mouth is one thing, but the pantomime antics of her irked court – each determined to be rid of Abdul- descends quickly to farce. ‘I know there is some skulduggery afoot’ snaps the Queen (boooo! hisss!) None of which sits at all comfortably with tonal shifts to darker tones and hints at political undertones of imperialism that might resonate today. Rare glimpses of the Mrs Brown are too often subsumed by flourishes of the Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Whereas the film opens with a caption nodding to this being a story of ‘mostly’ real events, a better fit would have been ‘occasionally’ real events. Frears is so evidently aiming for the broad audience which lapped up Their Finest or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that any threat to clearcut answers is swept aside. Almost entirely neglected is suggestion that Abdul might have abused his position at times and not been a simple, twinkly eyed saint. Victoria, meanwhile, is herself re-envisioned here as oddly naïve and anachronistically passive. Embellishing a story that is already hard to believe – in spite of being true – is a real false step. None of this feels in any way believable.
As in the case of John Brown, the Prince of Wales (here: Eddie Izaard) destroyed much of the evidence relating to real Victoria and Abdul relationship. What Basu has unearthed here, then, is a fascinating story and sweet tale of latter-day salvation for a Queen suffocated by duty and routine. In that sense, Victoria and Abdul is worth seeing. On the other hand, such is its flimsy whimsicality, it is a film most probably best left to a rainy afternoon on terrestrial.