There’s not much I can say about Judi Dench that her long and illustrious career doesn’t say for itself. She is simply one of the most remarkable and exquisite story tellers of our time. Without fail and in every project she undertakes, she crafts her performances with an air of authority and resplendence unique to only a select class of powerhouse women, like Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. And Dench’s performance in Victoria & Abdul cements her status as a reigning monarch within the film industry.
The film begins in the bustling streets of Agra in India 1887, where Abdul (Ali Fazal) is making his way to work. Upon arriving he is commanded by the British officer in charge to travel to England and present Her Majesty with a ceremonial coin in celebration of her Golden Jubilee.
Cut to, Her Majesty Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) as she is pulled from her bed by a host of ladies-in-waiting ready to dress and prepare her for her long day of royal engagements.
This introduction reveals the true essence of these characters with clarity and simplicity. He is full of life, and she can’t wait for life to leave her alone. Since the death of her husband Albert and confidant John Brown she has become hollow and depressed.
But it is when Victoria and Abdul meet each other that things begin to change. Through the mere gesture of forbidden eye contact, and a kiss bestowed upon thy royal shoe, the most unlikely of friendships begins to blossom. A friendship founded in mutual respect, and genuine affection (platonic of course), where for the first time in a long time, it seems that someone sincerely cares about Victoria with no thought for personal gain.
As the film progresses Victoria makes Abdul her primary manservant and then elevates him to Munshi status as he begins teaching her Urdu and lessons from the Quran. And it is here where the household staff become outraged at the Queen’s lack of decency in associating with a savage heathen. This staff ensemble, led by Tim Pigott-Smith and Olivia Williams, attempt to break them apart and seek help from the Queen’s own son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard).
The film is based loosely on real events adapted from Shrabani Basu’s novel and has been brought to life by Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and Screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse). Together, they have created a beautiful film, carried by immensely talented actors, delivering spot on dialogue that is funny, brutal and at times is so satisfying one can barely contain an involuntary fist-pump (but we can thank Judi Dench for all of that).
It seems to me that Dench was born to play Queen Victoria, and this film is a nice progression from her earlier work in Mrs Brown. She is simply spectacular. And this movie is worth watching just for her. Of particular note, the dining room scene and also her brilliant speech where she puts her son and all her staff in their place (cue fist-pump).
My only qualm with this movie is that it fails, rather miserably, to address the relationship between India and Britain at the time. At one point, the Queen herself doesn’t know what’s going on there, and I think that’s a bit of a cop out. I know the movie isn’t about that particular element of history, but to ignore it is maybe a touch insensitive.
Even so, I think this movie is sweet and funny. It brings to light a part of Victoria’s life that was completely hidden from the world and does so with care and tact. If you like witty old ladies, quick one liners and mangos, this is a movie for you.
Review by Isabelle Aswad