Victoria & Abdul a charming chocolate box with mostly emotional centres
TWENTY years ago Judi Dench beautifully captured the loneliness and dignity of Queen Victoria in John Madden's exquisite biographical drama, Mrs Brown. At the age of 64, she won Bafta and Golden Globe awards for her dazzling performance and garnered her first Oscar nomination.
Undeservedly, Dench lost the golden statuette to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets but the following year, she emerged victorious, this time as an acid-tongued Queen Elizabeth, for Shakespeare In Love.
The diminutive thespian effortlessly slips back into the regal garb of Queen Victoria for Stephen Frears's heart-warming drama torn from a long-lost page in history.
"Based on real events... mostly" declares an opening title card, raising the curtain on a comfortingly warm and cosy script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), who has adapted the book of the same title by Shrabani Basu.
Set during the final five years of Victoria's turbulent reign, Frears's picture touches upon some of the same themes as Dench's earlier portrayal of the grief-stricken monarch, albeit with more humour.
Mrs Lighter Brown, if you will.
The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria (Dench) is comfortably installed as Empress of India, although she has never visited the domain for fear of assassination. In Agra, two lowly men – Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) – are chosen by British authorities to present the monarch with a ceremonial gold coin called a mohur.
They travel to Windsor Castle and receive a crash course in royal etiquette from groom-in-waiting Alick Yorke (Julian Wadham). Soon after, Abdul catches Victoria's eye – "I thought the tall one was terribly handsome," she coos – and the visitor is rapidly promoted to the monarch's spiritual advisor or 'Munshi'.
A relationship of mutual appreciation blossoms between Victoria and Abdul, to the consternation of her son and heir apparent Bertie (Eddie Izzard), as well as private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), personal physician Dr Reid (Paul Higgins) and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon).
"I say he's the brown John Brown," cruelly sneers Baroness Churchill (Olivia Williams), one of the Queen's glowering companions.
Victoria & Abdul is a bittersweet and irresistibly charming chocolate box, filled predominantly with soft emotional centres.
Serious discourse about the impact of the British empire in late 19th-century India is conveniently swept under the palaces' Persian rugs.
Twinkly-eyed Dench is flawless, capturing the isolation and despair of her overweight, cantankerous ruler ("Everyone I've really loved has died and I just go on and on," she sobs) as well as Victoria's steely resolve when her son threatens to seize the throne by having her declared insane.
Screen chemistry with Bollywood hunk Fazal is delightful and the great and the good of the British acting establishment inhabit supporting roles with plummy aplomb.
VICTORIA & ABDUL (PG, 112 mins) Drama/Comedy. Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Julian Wadham, Michael Gambon. Director: Stephen Frears