** out of ****
(for some thematic elements and language)
Released: October 6, 2017
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar
With Judi Dench starring as Queen Victoria, Victoria & Abdul could’ve been a wonderful companion piece to the magnificent Mrs. Brown from twenty years ago, in which Dench first played (and was Oscar-nominated for portraying) England’s latter 19th Century monarch.
Instead, the two films work in tandem as an unfortunate but instructive compare-and-contrast, a case study on how to do a certain type of material with rich poignancy and class, and then how to make a complete mockery of it.
The two structures are so similar that Victoria & Abdul plays like a quasi-sequel, imitating the original in premise but then changing up the details. Mrs. Brown told the story of Queen Victoria’s personal, life-saving friendship with her Scottish servant John Brown that followed the death of her beloved husband. That film’s timeline ended in 1886.
Victoria & Abdul begins in 1887. It follows the Queen’s friendship with an Indian servant named Abdul, who becomes her spiritual advisor, and how he inspired Victoria in her final years. The film’s advertising could’ve been slapped with the tagline: “Same Queen. Different Footman. New Attitude.”
That sort of trite marketing would’ve been entirely appropriate for a movie that’s as equally glib. It takes the archetype of the stern but loyal John Brown and reincarnates him into the amiable Abdul, providing a similar influence but to much less credible or satisfying effect.
Compared to Mrs. Brown, which is an emotionally searing portrait of a profoundly moving, complex relationship, Victoria & Abdul is an art house softball, pandering to the Period Piece aficionado by playing cute with a progressive-yet-doddering Queen and the Indian version of the Magical Negro (think Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance).
The overall tone is lightweight; that’s particularly surprising given director Stephen Frears’ track record (The Queen and Dangerous Liasons, to name two). Dramatic stakes are entirely undercut by playing up the culture clash as silly antics. Seemingly insurmountable challenges are pushed aside all-too-easily.
Threats aren’t real; they’re formulaic plot beats, quickly dispensed of by Victoria. She simply tells off her advisors, who have imperialist sticks up their butts. (She’s even given a Sorkin-like monologue, too, stacked with an encyclopedic list of facts, delivered with rapid-fire defiance, and capped by a mic drop conclusion.)
The aesthetic is equally slight, feeling more modern than period. Yes, the costumes and set pieces are all 1800s, but the contemporary dialogue and overall lack of propriety keep us in the present, not transporting us to the past. You half-expect someone to pull out a smartphone at any moment.
A lighter, even more comedic approach is fine. This need not be as weighted as Mrs. Brown so powerfully was. Fears, however, makes a joke of a story that’s packed with layers of potential. Consequently, at those rare moments that the Queen expresses genuine vulnerability, even tears, it comes out nowhere – like from a different movie entirely – and doesn’t register.
Dench’s formidable chops are chopped and, as Abdul, the sincere charisma and noble grace of newcomer Ali Fazal is reduced to a flat (if endearing) caricature. The narrative focus even veers off-course, evolving from Victoria & Abdul to Victoria vs. the Petty, Cowardly Royal Household. This trifling miscalculation also belabors its import, overstaying its welcome by a good twenty minutes.
Like many biopics, this movie opens with an on-screen statement that reads (with a wink), “Based on a true story…mostly.” It should’ve said…barely.