CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon

Director: Stephen Frears

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Uptight Brits Trying (and Sometimes Failing) to Avoid Cursing and Discussing Naughty Bits

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)

With Victoria & Abdul, Judi Dench returns to the role that earned the dame her first Oscar nomination 20 years ago, and the Academy may very come calling yet again. Of course, such recognition is a distinct possibility for every Dench performance, but that is no reason not to say it again whenever it is called for. As with Mrs. Brown, the narrative focuses on the widowed Queen Victoria’s deeply close relationship with a servant. This time it is Abdul Karim (played with boundless oomph by Bollywood star Ali Fazal), an Indian man whose trip to England was originally meant to be a quick appearance to present the queen with a gift from her subjects but who ultimately became her confidant and spiritual teacher.

Looking over some of the other reviews of Victoria & Abdul, I must admit that I am probably lacking the best experience with which to approach this film. I am not a British citizen, nor do I hail from any country that has ever lived under the kingdom’s imperialist rule. The film might be guilty of whitewashing or revisionist history. I cannot speak sufficiently to its value as a document of record, but I can say that as storytelling, it is dynamic and morally engaging. It might make its heroes and villains more clear-cut than they actually were, but that approach does paint a valuable picture of what it means to be human towards each other.

As he proved with Philomena (the last time he guided Dench to an Oscar nomination), director Stephen Frears knows how to gradually suss out the seriousness from what at first appears to be a happy-go-lucky buddy flick. This could have just been the story of a woman in her twilight years who serendipitously developed a new close friendship that was surprising in many ways. And that would have been perfectly charming. But Victoria and Abdul’s story is much more than that.

Victoria uses the powers of her throne to insist that all subjects be treated justly and properly, thus bucking the push for decorum from the more openly racist members of her court. This is relatively low-risk for someone in her position of power, but that does not make it any less admirable. Much more complicated is Abdul’s behavior. He is encouraged by a fellow Indian servant not to prostrate himself so readily to the oppressor, but he finds a higher spiritual calling in the work of a servant, no matter what the greater context. Those who detect a problematic approach in Abdul’s portrayal are not necessarily wrong, but it is worthwhile to test out the more transcendent approach.

Victoria & Abdul is Recommended If You Like: Philomena, Any and all British royal pictures, Judi Dench at her Dench-iest

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Carpets