“Victoria and Abdul” is Judi Dench’s “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
Like Meryl Streep’s recent film, it gives its leading lady a chance to show how versatile – and vital – she still is.
Dench plays Queen Victoria during the waning years of her life. She’s something of a curmudgeon (who falls asleep during meals) who’s frequently bored. When a young Indian man shows up – to present a coin – she’s intrigued, then smitten. She makes him a part of her staff and begins a relationship that gets others talking. Foolish? That's what they think.
Based on a book that uncovered the friendship (apparently all records were destroyed by Victoria’s heirs), the queen and Abdul (Ali Fazal) weren’t romantically involved, just communicative. Still, Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) is incensed, believing something could be getting in his path to the throne. He plots with the staff and tries to derail some of her more outrageous ideas – including a knighthood that would more than reek of scandal.
Director Stephen Frears isn’t afraid to humanize anyone, making Abdul an innocent, Bertie a petty dolt and Victoria a victim of flattery.
Dench, in particular, plays the story’s edges. She’s great as a prop going through the motions; she’s even better as the woman smitten with a man of ideas.
When the staff learns of Abdul’s quick ascendance they believe something has to be done immediately or their world will devolve into chaos. When the group tries to figure who should best talk with the queen, “Victoria and Abdul” becomes a bit of slapstick – perhaps too loose for the film’s own good. While we’ve been coached to believe all household help is like the “Downton Abbey” crowd, it’s probably closer to this, where it’s every man (or woman) for himself.
Victoria gets word of the coup, giving Dench a great chance to show she, too, isn’t just a museum object, here to be dusted off for a brief moment.
Because she played the character in “Mrs. Brown,” she brings a depth that doesn’t come from merely putting on a dress. She has experience and it shows.
Fazal matches her well. He isn’t a calculating man, just a grateful one. When others try to tear him down, he doesn’t fight. He accepts his fate. And that’s what makes Victoria’s gestures so interesting.
“Victoria and Abdul” may not be entirely true (it says it’s based on a real story…mostly) but it’s a nice way of looking at those who seem beyond reach.
Victoria may be a queen, but she’s a person, too. Abdul just brings out the best in her.