Film & Television

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

Bollywood hunk Ali Fazal is endearing as Abdul (and quite handsome, as the elderly but still flirty Victoria is quick to note). He willfully disregards British protocol. “Do not look directly at her,” he’s been warned in no uncertain terms. Of course, he does look directly at her and she is immediately drawn to him. He treats her with a refreshing combination of unabashed adulation and human fellowship — neither of which she receives from her jaded attendants. How Abdul really feels about British rule in India is never addressed, although his fellow traveler, Mohammed, marvelously played by Adeel Akhtar, is given many opportunities to criticize imperialism. At one point, he calls Abdul an “Uncle Tom.”

The queen’s household, portrayed by an elite group of British actors, including Fenella Woolgar, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Gambon, and Paul Higgins, acts as the film’s Victorian Greek chorus. They move as a group, observe the queen’s unconventional new friendship with alarm, and comment on it, bemoaning the arrival of “The black Mr. Brown,” despairing that “She’ll be wearing a burka next,” and tearing their hair out over the monarch’s “Munshi mania.” Her son “Bertie,” played with relish by the larger-than-life Eddie Izzard, is particular despicable. If Victoria is sad that she’s lived as long as she has, he is absolutely enraged by it. While she persists into her dotage, he watches the years he might be king pass him by. (Prince Charles, although nowhere near as dissolute as his royal forefather, can surely relate on some level. Elizabeth II, by the way, is the only British monarch who has surpassed Victoria for years on the throne.)

Despite the film’s title, Victoria and Abdul is very much the former’s story — whether by design or simply because Dench rises so far above even her most gifted collaborators. One aspect of the movie is certainly the humorous concept of a nineteenth century odd couple. But, it’s also the study of a ruler, particularly a female ruler, who knows she is past per prime. At one point, Victoria tells Abdul, “We are all prisoners.” But, her day-to-day life looks less like a bird in a gilded cage, and more like a scene from a nursery. She’s treated as a troublesome infant whom no one really likes. Queen of nearly a billion people, she is interrogated about her bowel movements on a daily basis and in front of her immediate household. No wonder she longs for an adult friendship.

‘It must have been glorious to have somebody to talk to,’ Dench recently reflected. ‘Somebody to learn from, and to exchange ideas with. And she was proprietorial with him; he kind of belonged to her – I’m sure that just having somebody to relax with must have been wonderful for anyone in that position.’

In Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Judi Dench’s Oscar-worthy second turn as Queen Victoria is a poignant portrait of fading power and human connection. No matter why Abdul came into her life, or what he may have hoped to gain in doing so, he apparently eased her burdens and afforded her some simple happiness at the end of her historic service to her people.

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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………