A breakthrough rather than a breakdown defines this genial biographic drama
The end of life is all about the waiting, the loud and slow ticking of the clock as everyone hovers nearby, watching the inevitable with a sense that has apparently moved past sadness. That’s the impression dominating every frame, early on, in “Victoria and Abdul,” the new release from director Stephen Frears (who previously helmed “The Queen” with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II) and screenwriter Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”). Based on Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, the British perspective hones in, with a clinical deliberateness that highlights the inherent dilemma of rule by monarchy.
Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench), the widowed royal who, at the time held the record for the longest reign in history and came to define the era, was seemingly on her last legs. To be fair, the legs in question didn’t even appear to belong to the Queen. Victoria was being wheeled around and propped up by her devoted staff, while her son and successor Teddy, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) flitted around the periphery. It would have been unbecoming of him to hover over his mother wishing for that last breath to pass from her, but I’m not sure how much better it was for him to traipse about like a teenager on spring break.
One gets the impression, from Victoria herself, in fact, that the state dinners she presided over without an ounce of concern for anything other than stuffing her face as quickly as humanly possible the falling into a food coma would most likely be the death of her. The lifeless routine must have sucked the blood and air out of her like a black hole, and it would have accomplished its aim, if not for the arrival of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk filled with good will and a charming appreciation for each and every moment. As fate would have it, Abdul gets pressed into service by the Brits overseeing his region, travels to England to present Queen Victoria with a ceremonial coin to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, and in one shining moment, locks eyes with the ruler of the great empire.
And the wait, at least Victoria’s, is over. No longer is she merely a frail thing tethered to life by those tending to her. The twinkle returns to her eye and everyone notices. She vocally admires Abdul’s youth and attractiveness, setting of tremors of excitement and anxiety throughout the royal household. Before long, Abdul takes a place next to Victoria while she writes her daily notes and winds up telling her stories about his homeland that inspires her to want to know more and live again, for the first time possibly in decades.
Frears can’t help but spotlight the impossibility of this dawning relationship between the Queen and the clerk (which begins with a healthy dose of misdirection and a mistaken identity play that feels like it would have been more at home in a sitcom adaptation of this tale than this narrative feature), which wears all of its class, race, age, culture and historic markers for everyone to see. What makes it work is the combination of Frears refusing to brazenly leer at the notion of the Queen’s attentions and Dench’s deft sensibilities.
There is a complexity to how Frears represents the Queen and her world that slyly makes her seem like a far more modern figure, a woman far and away ahead of her time, which certainly works for contemporary audiences without playing like a too-hip redefinition. Victoria develops organically into a woman awakened to the world, specifically a side of it she never knew, and she’s eager to learn about it. The pursuit of knowledge helps her keep the end at bay; Victoria gets to retreat a step or two from the precipice.
And Dench guarantees that we identify with this newfound second (third or fourth, who knows) chance because she makes us believe the realities of this woman who otherwise would be beyond our understanding. Her absolute position and power should create a huge gulf between the character and the audience, but Dench shows us how Victoria uses that privilege to bridge the gap. “Victoria and Abdul” speaks to the ability for leadership to transform people and rulers alike from those waiting for something, into seekers.
Rating: PG-13 // Grade: B+