“Based on real events … mostly,” reads the opening credit to “Victoria & Abdul.” It’s up to historians to assess how accurate this funny, charming film is to the details of Queen Victoria’s last years, but its use of poetic license is impeccable.
The story takes us into the pomp, high formality and backstabbing surrounding the queen beginning more or less around 1899, the last year and a half of her reign — although its dramatic chronology claims to begin in 1887, therefore drastically compressing the last 15 years of her life. In any case, she is the longest reigning monarch in history, which has left her deeply bored, sharp-tempered, dangerously obese and prone to fall asleep halfway through official functions.
It also marks her Golden Jubilee, when the leaders of her empire’s billion subjects pay homage with lavish symbolic gifts. The only one that counts is a ceremonial gold coin carried halfway around the world from India to her Scottish summer castle by Abdul Karim, a humble young clerk pressed into service by British officials.
Because he was friendlier with her highness than protocol allowed, because he was notably tall and handsome and because he arrived before her at the right moment, he created a strong impression. Which caused a keen elevation in Victoria’s liveliness, which boosted his status from her royal servant to close friend, which triggered much scurrilous backstage gossip among the sovereign’s fawning aides and officials, which left Abdul as the sole trustworthy companion in her life. It’s a true story, mostly.
Judi Dench, a 1997 best actress Oscar contender for her role as a younger version of Victoria in “Mrs. Brown,” returns here for the final chapter of the queen’s story. It’s a wry, funny, likable performance with glints of sadness and mortality, the kind of work that almost guarantees another Oscar nomination.
Her Victoria is initially all flint and gravitas, eating her banquet feasts with her fingers like a gluttonous Henry VIII and glaring at her courtiers like a gargoyle. Dench, acting with the incisive focus of a laser, silently shows us that Victoria has lost touch with mortals by being imprisoned in the world’s biggest gilded cage.
When Abdul arrives (played by dashing Bollywood star Ali Fazal), he violates decorum by looking directly into the queen’s eyes and giving her a warm smile. She begins arranging opportunities to wear smart attire, inquiring about his unusual background and publicly declaring, “I suddenly feel a great deal better.” When Puccini (Simon Callow) shows up to sing, she feels good enough to stand up and trill some Gilbert and Sullivan herself.
She promotes Abdul from attendant to personal tutor and spiritual guide in part because he’s a coy flatterer, literally kissing her foot on their second meeting and buttering her up with the explanation that the delicious Indian mango is “the queen of fruit.” But he’s no man on the make, something that’s made even clearer when the queen invites his wife to join him in the U.K. He appreciates Victoria’s status and also her tolerance, sharing her vulnerabilities with him and keeping him at her side almost full-time even when she learns that his Muslim brothers issued a fatwa against her.
As if their relationship in itself weren’t enough, the difference in their skin colors drives the royal court’s inner circle insane. Director Stephen Frears, who dealt with simmering racial, culture and class tensions decades earlier in “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Dirty Little Things,” takes a more sedate approach here, oozing glossy prestige.
That is the central shortcoming of this handsome, precisionally engineered production. The members of the queen’s household who try to destroy the friendship in fear of national chaos are parody bigots with batty, tut-tutting outbursts. “She’ll be wearing a burqa next,” grumbles the prime minister (a bone-dry Michael Gambon). The queen’s aging heir-apparent Bertie, the future Edward VII, is played in a “just kidding” tone by Eddie Izzard. His frustration that mama doesn’t seem to be dying anytime soon makes for lighthearted comedy but lightweight drama.
But in the face of another stellar performance by the incomparable Dench, this is quibbling. Nothing short of a four-alarm fire in the auditorium should keep you away.