By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The last time Judi Dench made this movie, it was with Billy Connolly and a Shetland pony.
This time, it’s with a limpid-eyed Indian.
Connolly and the pony worked better.
Taking place some years after “Mrs. Brown,” (Dench’s first foray as Queen Victoria), “Victoria & Abdul” cheekily claims to be “based on real events…mostly.”
Apparently, when the Queen was nearing the end of her long reign (and life), India, still a British colony, wanted to present her with a rare coin — or some such something — for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
A handsome young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is chosen to present it to her. Why? Mostly because he’s tall.
Abdul is given very precise instructions as to how to approach Her Majesty. The key to good service, he’s told, is to be still and move backwards. And most importantly, never ever look at her.
Which, of course, he does. Their eye contact is followed by an irresistible smile. His, not hers. Still, it’s clear he’s made an impression.
So, instead of being sent back home, he’s kept on. To do just what, exactly, isn’t made clear. But he quickly endears himself to her with talk of Indian rugs, mangoes and the Taj Mahal. He promises to teach her Urdu and, at one point, overcome with feeling for his Queen, falls to his knees and passionately kisses the royal feet.
That’s about as far as the physical thing goes. We soon learn Abdul has a wife — and a mother-in-law — both of whom are brought to London by the Queen.
It’s just another sign of the considerable favor he enjoys, which displeases the rest of the Brits to no end. Her snobby courtiers — among them, Michael Gambon and Eddie Izzard — huff about like characters in a Monty Python sketch.
Director Stephen Frears does have fun lampooning British pomp and circumstances at its most pompously circumstanced. Simply bringing Victoria a bowl of soup is enough to throw the household into mild pandemonium. And her daily round of meetings, lunches and teas with Dukes, Counts and offbeat potentates (say, the Royal family of Hawaii) sounds stultifying.
But about 40 minutes in, you feel the movie is simply repeating the same cross-cultural jokes, over and over. We’re not sure what to make of Abdul who, it turns out, is more than capable of bending the truth about certain things (his religion, his marital status, his venereal disease). If this is meant to make him somehow mysterious, it doesn’t.
But there’s no attempt to make him into a scoundrel either, even an impishly appealing one. After Victoria’s death, he and his family return to India where, we’re told, he dies in 1909. In 1947, we’re further told, India gains its independence. How these two events are meant to be connected is, well, not very clear.
Fazal is an adorable presence and he makes Abdul an adorable man. But not much more. So the rest of the film falls to Dame Judi who scoops it up and tends to it with her usual skill and humor.
Taken as a portrait of a lonely Queen Victoria in her dotage — the lioness in winter, if you will — “Victoria & Abdul” is a pleasant enough time-passer. And it is a treat to see Dench on screen for great gobs of time. Whether she’s dozing off before dessert at a state dinner or admitting, with a knowing sigh, that she is, perhaps, “disagreeably attached to power,” she’s a wonder.
But if it were left to me, I’d stay home and check out “Mrs. Brown.”