Movie review: Victoria & Abdul chooses gags over substance

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Judi Dench and Ali Fazal make an unlikely pair in Victoria & Abdul, a true story that suffers as a comedy. Courtesy Focus Features Judi Dench and Ali Fazal make an unlikely pair in Victoria & Abdul, a true story that suffers as a comedy. Courtesy Focus Features

The story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim—“the Munshi”—is one worth telling. Karim, a humble clerk in Agra, was invited to participate in a ceremony for the queen, which resulted in the initiation of a peculiar friendship that defied convention and stirred controversy among the Royal Court. All of the ingredients are there: class antagonism, racial divide, the relationship between rulers and their subjects, colonialism, you name it.

Why, then, did director Stephen Frears, a real talent and a solid intellect, make Victoria & Abdul a comedy? The massive failures in doing so are two-fold: First, there are no jokes, only reaction shots of snooty, scandalized aristocrats. If you’ve seen How High or Dunston Checks In, you already know these gags. The second is that all of the juicy storytelling bits that might have made this interesting are whittled away in favor of two-dimensional characters and unevenness in tone when Frears decides to get serious. Ultimately, it’s a pointless exercise in keeping talented performers employed between better projects.

Victoria & Abdul
PG-13, 112 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema

We meet Abdul (Ali Fazal) in Agra in 1887, where he works as a clerk in the local prison. There, he is invited to present a ceremonial coin to the queen (Judi Dench) as part of the Golden Jubilee festivities. He was chosen because he helped select carpets that were sent to the palace, and because he is tall and rather handsome. The other man sent with him, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), is shorter and stout, another thing that is meant to be funny. Upon arriving in England, they run through the ceremony: how to walk, how to bow, and under no circumstances are they to make direct eye contact. This being precisely the sort of movie that thinks doing something you’re told not to is unspeakably hilarious, Abdul and the queen lock eyes and the snobs are outraged. Victoria, on the other hand, is immediately fascinated by this striking presence, so she requests that he be her attendant for the duration of the jubilee.

Fazal and Dench have real chemistry, and it is easy to believe that their interest in one another is genuine, not simply one demanded by the script. Fazal is charming, optimistic, always light on his feet, and ought to appear in Western films more often. Dench delivers an airtight performance as usual, capturing the dignity of royalty against the indignity of being a monarch with no privacy and a continually shrinking role in government. The supporting cast is terrific as well, with Akhtar’s simmering anger toward the British Empire chief far underutilized. Eddie Izzard as Bertie—later known as King Edward, Victoria’s heir—cannot stand the insult of a commoner having a closer relationship with his mother than her own son. He is enjoyable, as always, in the role, but like anything else of quality in this film, the solid performance is reduced to one note.

The irony of Abdul leaving the employment of a prison to serve another who feels caged by her privilege is totally unexplored. Though Fazal is a joy to watch, his character has little depth beyond his optimism, and he’s strangely absent for what feels like half the film. Perhaps if we saw this from his perspective as often as hers, Victoria & Abdul might be something interesting. Instead, we are left with the same boring redundancy masquerading as sophistication that made the queen herself feel trapped.


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