Film & Television

“Long Live the Queen!” Judi Dench Rules in Victoria and Abdul

Some actors, despite long and varied careers, are forever associated with a single iconic role. Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, for example. Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Judy Garland as Dorothy. When it came time to cast an elderly Queen Victoria in Stephen Frears’s new movie Victoria and Abdul, I doubt there was any hesitation. Dame Judi Dench was the best and, for many involved in the project, the only choice. As the director, who had worked with her four years prior in Philomena said, “It had to be her.”

Speaking of a long and varied — not to mention celebrated — career, Dame Judi is an undisputed member of Britain’s theatre royalty. Born in 1934, she was surrounded by thespians from an early age; her father and mother were employed by the York Theatre (he was their official physician; she their wardrobe mistress). Judi studied alongside Vanessa Redgrave at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and beat that illustrious classmate as the school’s “Outstanding Student.”

Her professional career began at 23 when she was cast as Ophelia in the Old Vic Company’s Hamlet. Years of stage work followed, including a long stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as roles for film and television (she earned the first of her six BAFTAs in 1966). In 1968, she played Sally Bowles in London’s original cast of Cabaret.

Dench didn’t really come to the attention of the average American audience until she appeared in 1995’s GoldenEye as “M,” James Bond’s boss. (The role had been played by men in previous movies.) She appeared in six more Bond films, as well as popular fare like Chocolat, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Notes on a Scandal, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotels, one and two. She also, interestingly enough, has already played Queen Victoria.

In 1997, Dench portrayed the monarch in John Madden’s Mrs. Brown, the bittersweet story of Victoria’s friendship (and perhaps love) for her Scottish servant after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Time Out raved, “Dench is magnificent as Victoria, a toy-sized, black-suited, dough girl of despair, a woman slowly recovering her wits and her expectations.” The role earned her an Oscar nomination. (She won the following year for her eight mesmerizing minutes of screen time as a different British royal: Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.)

In Victoria and Abdul, both the queen and the actress are 20 years older. The screenplay, by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), is based on Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, which in turn is based on the real-life journals of both of the book’s subjects. In 1887, a young clerk, Abdul Karim, was sent from Agra, India to Victoria’s court at Windsor Castle to present the sovereign (and then “Empress of India”) with a commemorative coin in honor of her Golden Jubilee. “The Hindu” (we later learn he is a Muslim) caught the queen’s eye and she made him a member of her household. Eventually his relationship evolved to one of friend, advisor, and “Munshi” or spiritual teacher. Victoria moved his family to England, and bestowed upon him land and a title. He remained by her side until her death in 1901when he was violently ousted by her jealous son and heir Edward VII. Karim returned to India, where he died eight years later (a rich, but purportedly broken man). All of this is accepted and documented. What’s missing from the true story of this unlikely alliance are the emotions.

Victoria and Abdul attempts to fill in those blanks. At the beginning of the movie, type comes up that informs us it is “Based on real events … mostly.” This cheeky disclaimer sets a comic tone (as does much of the movie’s trailer). But, in reality, the movie is most affecting when it focuses on Victoria’s situation and self-knowledge as she nears the end of her long life and reign. The reason that this theme resonates so deeply, of course, is Dench’s magnetic screen presence and her phenomenal range as an actress.

In the course of the less than two-hour film, Dench is equally believable as an exhausted leader, a still grieving widow, an inspired student, and a powerful monarch. The script gives her wonderful material to work with. When her hateful wastrel of a son challenges her decisions, she holds her ground. “I am cantankerous, greedy, fat, but I am anything but insane.” Later, in a touching moment of quiet with Abdul, she confides, “Everyone I’ve ever really loved has died, and I just go on and on.” The remarkable actress is nearly as effective without saying a word. Her steady gaze, her diminished posture, or the very hint of a smile as if she’s in on a joke that the clownish courtiers don’t quite get speak volumes.

Time is compressed in Victoria and Abdul. The real-life Abdul served the Queen for nearly 15 years, but the film sometimes feels as though it takes place over a matter of months or a very few years at best. This, and the fact that the screenplay so favors the queen, leaves us with questions about her unusual companion. What were his motives? Was his only aim to serve? Or did he not consciously enthrall her majesty and reap enormous rewards for his efforts?

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  • Phyllis Dupret October 10, 2017 at 7:33 am

    Thank you for this wonderful review and clip of the film I look forward to seeing………