Dench is as dependable as ever as an aging Queen Victoria besotted with her young Indian servant in creaky, old-fashioned drama from Stephen Frears
God save Judi Dench, defender of tat, defender of bad cinemas and the imperious queen of Stephen Frears’ suspect British attire drama, which screens out of competitor at the Venice film festival. Frears’ latest is a cloth-eared Gunga Din tale, painted up as a chaste romance and charting the true( but never convincing) friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian Muslim. It’s only Dench’s shrewd, affecting performance that maintains this sorry affair on its feet.
Our nominal hero is Abdul Karim( Ali Fazal ), plucked out of Agra to present HRH with a commemorative coin at a golden jubilee banquet. Victoria, poor soul, is deep in decrepitude, a shrunken white toadstool at the head of the table, but she perks up like a teenager when she claps eyes on Abdul. She thinks that he’s handsome whereas he lives to serve, promptly grovelling on the ground in order to kiss the royal boot. So this is a match stimulated in heaven: the flattered old ruler and her eager young lickspittle. I was left wondering how this would look if the genders were reversed: if Frears made a film about a jaded old monarch who takes a passing lustful fancy for some subcontinent maid. Would that also be presented as charming, gracious and touching?
Naturally it transpires that Victoria is lonely, oppressed by the royal doctor who monitors her bowel movement and the solicitous Sir Henry Ponsonby( played by the late Tim Pigott-Smith) who monitors everything else. She needs a true friend and appears to have found one in Abdul. He becomes her cherished manservant, ascends through the ranks, begins teaching her Urdu. But really, beyond the obvious, what does she see in this guy? Fazal’s performance is spectacularly uninteresting, which might not be his defect- the script by Lee Hall gives him precious little to work with.
Here and there we get occasional clues that Abdul is out for himself, that he’s as much an ambitious operator as the other palace players. But the movie moves rapidly to shoot down these suggestions. More dubiously, it seems intent on casting Queen Victoria, the bastion of empire, as some progressive outrider, railing against white racists. If Frears doesn’t quite go in so far as to paint her as Gandhi and Nehru come early, that may only be because the historians transgressed in and held a firearm to his head.
This director is skittish; his career jumps and troughs like a cardiogram reading. Frears has made some great movies( The Grifters, Philomena, My Beautiful Laundrette) and some god-awful ones too( Lay the Favourite; Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight ). Victoria& Abdul belongs with the dud. Matters marginally improve when politics intrude on the idyll and when the scandalised courtiers start plotting the man’s downfall, but it’s too little, too late. What a peculiarly dodgy, conservative cinema this is- a lazy salute to a good queen and her faithful Indian servant. It’s a film about the Raj era that appears as though it were built back then, too.
* Victoria& Abdul was screening at the Venice film festival, and will be released in September .
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