We’ve had several Winston Churchills in the last couple of years — Brian Cox in “Churchill,” John Lithgow in Netflix’s “The Crown,” and Gary Oldman in the upcoming “Darkest Hour.”
But there’s only one Queen Victoria. Judi Dench played the monarch in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown,” and she puts the crown back on for Stephen Frears’ “Victoria & Abdul.” Both films revolve around an unlikely friendship between the queen and a commoner. In the case of “Victoria & Abdul,” while the opening titles cheekily state “Based on true events . . . mostly,” Lee Hall’s screenplay gets the relationship more or less right.
Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is an eager young Muslim clerk in India who is tasked with traveling to England to present Queen Victoria with a coin honoring her Golden Jubilee, celebrating 50 years of rule. With a skeptical colleague (Adeel Akhtar) in tow, Abdul is as excited to meet the queen as a fanboy at Comic Con.
But the queen doesn’t quite live up to the billing. At 81, Victoria is visibly bored with ruling an empire, slurping and slopping her way through a commemorative lunch, then falling asleep after dessert. The presentation of the coin is supposed to be a quick in-and-out ceremony, but a funny thing happens: Abdul and the queen make a connection.
The queen brightens up in the presence of this handsome young man from the other side of the Commonwealth. She asks Abdul to stay as her personal footman during the Jubilee celebrations, to the astonishment of the other palace personnel. Excited to learn about life in India, Victoria eventually asks Abdul to become her “munshi” (teacher).
The first half of “Victoria & Abdul” is played as broad comic farce, as Victoria’s ne’er-do-well son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) and her staff press their ears against the door and listen to Abdul teach their queen how to write in Urdu. Dench is reliably terrific, displaying both Victoria’s mercurial side and her tired, tender inner self.
Unfortunately, Fazal isn’t given much more to do as Abdul than fawn over his queen and teach her life lessons. And he recedes almost completely into the background in the film’s third act, which suddenly turns into heavy-handed drama as Bertie and the Queen’s staff astonishment turns to jealousy and prejudice. They conspire to break up the friendship, even to the point of having the queen declared insane. None of these schemes are very convincing or effective, and serve largely to give Dench the chance to give several defiant speeches that will likely play well with Oscar voters.
Of course, Dench is the person that the movie is built around, not Fazal, so it makes some sense to give her the focus. But “Victoria & Abdul” would have been much better if it had developed both sides of the ampersand, if we knew more about Abdul and his life in India.
Spike Lee once coined a phrase called “Magical Negro,” describing an African-American character who exists in a movie largely to improve the life of a white main character. (Think Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” or Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile.”) I fear “Victoria & Abdul” may be the first in a well-meaning but misguided new subgenre of “Magical Muslim” movies, featuring Muslim characters that are heroic and inspiring to white audiences, but not allowed to be fully developed characters on their own. It’s too bad that the movie couldn’t have shown the same curiosity about Abdul’s life that Queen Victoria did.