Historical dramas can be ponderous, slow and humorless affairs, or they can be VICTORIA & ABDUL. Smart, funny and engaging, it’s a perfectly cast take of a very unlikely friendship.
Dame Judi Dench is brilliant as Queen Victoria, old and bored with the meticulous routine of her daily responsibilities, she’s living a life of privileged tradition.
Sadly, it’s also a life without any emotional connection.
We meet Abdul Karim, chosen to be part of the Indian entourage for the Queen’s golden jubilee. Watching Karim get sucked into the pomp and circumstance of the event is hilarious. His chosen partner in the event is Mohammed, a much shorter and grumpier last-minute replacement who has no use for the gaudy costumes and traditions they must follow. Adeel Akhtar (the Big Sick) delivers big laughs as the polar opposite of Abdul’s excitement.
When Abdul inadvertently looks directly at Queen Victoria, he sparks something in her.
Dench is flawless as royalty. She dozes during meals, eats like a ravenous animal and is completely unengaged, until their eyes meet.
Soon she asks for Abdul and Mohammed to make an appearance at a state lunch, and then she asks Abdul to become her personal assistant.
While hugely respectful of the Queen, he treats her as he would anyone else, sharing his opinions and aspirations that inspires perhaps the first “real” conversation she’s had in decades.
Their bond grows, his status escalates, and the Queen’s closest advisors grow cautious and spiteful against this common man from India.
Ali Fazal is fantastic as Abdul. He’s got real screen presence and charm and you grow to care for him and his family, which makes the constant attacks by her entourage all the more concerning.
Eddie Izzard is excellent as the Queen’s son Bertie, Prince of Wales. Tim Pigott-Smith (V for Vendetta) is just the right mix of pompous and indignant as the Queen’s lead advisor and Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) weighs in with perfect smug indignation.
A near perfect balance of biography, humor and drama, it pulls you in from the start and never let’s go.
When the Queen’s entire staff conspires to mutiny in response to Abdul’s presence, Dench delivers one of the most blistering monologues to her team that I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the best scenes in a film loaded with great moments.
Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liasons) is the perfect choice for the material, weaving a tale that touches on family, friendship, ageism and racism.
Dench has played Queen Victoria before in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown” and played Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love”. When she’s this good, why would you cast anyone else?
VICTORIA & ABDUL’s friendship brings true change to them both as they learn from each other’s past, goals and opinions in transparent conversations that open up both their worlds. In times like these, it’s a valuable lesson about finding the common good in each other, regardless of politics, religion or social status.
We could all use more of that in 2020 and beyond.
VICTORIA & ABDUL gets an A.