Dame Judi Dench, even in her sleep, could probably play any British Queen, especially Victoria, but as she proves in Stephen Frears’ latest royal delight Victoria & Abdul, she seems to be finding new avenues to bring history alive. An Oscar winner as a Queen in Shakespeare In Love and a Best Actress nominee for Mrs. Brown in 1997, Dench returns to the latter film’s character of Queen Victoria, making it look like the first time anyone has tackled the part.
As I say in my video review above, this is completely fresh stuff, the uncovering of an obscure part of Victoria’s life when she struck up a relationship with a young clerk from India named Abdul (Ali Fazal), who journeyed to England with his sidekick Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) on a routine ceremonial assignment to present her with a small gift from his country. She accidentally catches his eye, and her curiosity is awakened. In no time she has turned him into her personal footman, and later her teacher (or Munshi, as he becomes known when she attempts to learn Hindu). His stay in the country, much to Mohammed’s dislike, is prolonged as the relationship grows into a genuine friendship and mutual admiration. Of course this all causes severe friction among the palace staff, particularly Bertie (Eddie Izzard), her son and next in line to the throne as the eventual King Edward VII. He is bound and determined to get rid of this interloper, but Queen Vic will have none of that.
The movie, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival over the weekend and is headed to the Toronto Film Festival later this week, is warm, winning and touching. It is a little-known part of her history uncovered by screenwriter Lee Hall, even though Edward had burned and destroyed all correspondence in an attempt to erase the episode — a royal embarrassment in his opinion — from English records. He failed though to find the Queen’s diary, which revealed all, and the rest is indeed history.
Frears, who has worked with Dench often — most recently in Philomena — and also directed Helen Mirren to her Oscar in The Queen, has guided this all with a light, almost old fashioned touch, and the tone he strikes is perfect. Of course he has Dench, and who needs anything more? But with a marvelous cast including Fazal, and Akhtar as the sidekick (he is a gem here), he can’t go wrong. Izzard is all fluster and bureaucratic as the heavy of the piece, and there is a load of wonderful character actors including Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Paul Higgins and the late Tim Piggot-Smith to whom the film is dedicated.
If you think somehow this is going to be the stuff of British pomp with the same old circumstance, think again — it’s splendid all around. Producers are Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron and Tracey Seaward. Focus Features will open it September 22.
Do you plan to see Victoria & Abdul? Let us know what you think.