Judi Dench is at her regal best as Queen Victoria in director Stephen Frears’ lightweight but pleasing Victoria and Abdul, which is “Based on real events…mostly” according to the opening title card. What follows isn’t necessarily historically accurate—some would call it revisionism regarding the British Raj in India—but Dench is so magnificent and the picture so winsome that viewers will likely surrender to its many charms.
The story begins in 1887 as the queen celebrates her Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of her ascension to the throne. In India, which is under British rule, a ceremonial coin is minted to honor her, and two locals are chosen to travel to England and present the gift to the queen. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a happy-go-lucky prison clerk, is selected because he is tall. The shorter Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), his fellow sojourner, is a last-minute replacement for another statuesque fellow who took an injurious tumble from an elephant. When the two arrive in England, they are given strict instructions on how to present the coin; the most important thing to remember, they are told, is to never make direct eye contact with Her Majesty. Of course, Abdul can’t resist and glances at the queen. And, much to his surprise, she returns his gaze. The bored monarch, whose days are jam-packed with monotonous meetings, meaningless appearances, and dull state dinners, is smitten by the handsome young man. She requests that he become her footman, despite protests from her advisors and spoiled son Bertie (a terrific Eddie Izzard). Soon, Abdul begins teaching the queen the language Urdu and giving her insights from the Koran. Over time, he becomes the lonely, widowed queen’s confidant and closest friend. But as their relationship deepens, Bertie, the prime minister, and the queen’s entire staff, who are equally appalled and jealous, seek to undermine their friendship and persuade the queen to send Abdul back to the subcontinent.
It seems that Dame Dench was born to portray royalty. She memorably played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, earning her first Academy Award nomination for the 1997 film. The following year, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. She is even better here, deftly mixing comedy with heartfelt drama: A scene in which she witheringly refutes an insanity claim brought by her son and personal physician, who are trying to get her dethroned, is worth the price of admission alone. Fazal is fine, too, even though his character remains pretty much one-dimensional throughout. But he’s a pleasure to watch nonetheless, and it’s easy to see why he’s a Bollywood star. Along with the aforementioned Izzard, the top-notch supporting cast, which includes Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, and Olivia Williams, are superb. Credit must also be given to Lee Hall for his sharp-witted script, and to Frears for his impeccable direction.
Victoria and Abdul isn’t meant to be a history lesson. It’s a handsomely mounted historical comedy-drama about two very different people who bond through their shared humanity and strong sense of duty. It’s also a supreme showcase for one of our finest actresses, who should be in the running for another piece of hardware come Oscar night.