Victoria and Abdul: Long live the queen

Give Dame Judi Dench a role in your movie and good things are going to happen.

Make her royalty and your film is bound to shine no matter how average and uneven the script might be.

Such is the case with “Victoria and Abdul,” the latest film from British director Stephen Frears.

Based on the book of the same name from Shrabani Basu, “Victoria and Abdul” follows the unlikely, but true account of a Muslim man from India’s friendship and tutelage of an aging Queen Victoria during the final years of her reign in the late 1800s. Their devotion and loyalty to each other creates massive cracks in the British Royal Family and threatens to destroy her reign.

As Queen Victoria, Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench is a stoic, stern monarch withered by decades of loneliness seeking companionship during the waning years of her life.

Over the course of the film, her Victoria warms considerably in response to Abdul’s kindness and friendship and Dench’s performance becomes increasingly engaging as the movie progresses.

Having Dench melt into the role of Victoria is exactly as captivating as it sounds.

While certainly not as broad and demonstrative as Meryl Streep’s turn as the titular character in Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Dench could easily see herself earn her eighth Academy Award nomination and second as Queen Victoria following 1997’s “Mrs. Brown.”
Bollywood star Ali Fazal brings warmth and nuance to the role of Abdul.

There’s a slight layer of naivety and amazement Fazal offers early in the film that fades into the background as Dench’s performance almost completely overwhelms the screen.

This dynamic feels intended by Frears, as Abdul takes a considerable backseat once the two begin their work together. Fazal is left with a rather one-note performance, though that one-note of friendly foreigner is played very successfully.

There just isn’t the same level of character depth to the unlikely student/teacher dynamic as can be found in the similar, yet more exceptional “The King’s Speech.”

The film also boasts a wealth of strong supporting talent, including Eddie Izzard as Victoria’s conniving son Bertie and the late Tim Pigott-Smith as the queen’s private secretary.

But the most impressive secondary performance comes from Adeel Akhtar as Abdul’s friend and aide Mohammed. Akhtar delivers a consistent scene-stealing comedic presence in much the same way he sparkled in limited screen time as Naveed in the hit romantic comedy “The Big Sick.”

He is able to provide the same dry, brash humor to Mohammed, but also carries more than his fair share of dramatic acting with a rich, bittersweet performance capped off by two of the best acted scenes any supporting performer will give this year.

The thing that’s most surprising about “Victoria and Abdul” is its subtle, subversive humor that undercuts and accents what otherwise would be a pretty mundane, average period drama.

Jokes don’t fly off the screen in “Victoria,” but audiences paying attention to the banter will be treated with consistent, quality laughs.

Much of the film’s success stems from Frears’ ability to draw quality performances from his actors, most notably his chemistry with Dench, who earned an Oscar nomination for her work in his 2013 film “Philomena.”

While it’s unlikely that “Victoria” will match the same level of critical or awards season success as the four nominations for “Philomena,” Dench will certainly be a strong frontrunner for a Best Actress nomination and the script from writer Lee Hall could be an outside contender in Best Adapted Screenplay.

A very dry film that may rub some audience members the wrong way, “Victoria and Abdul” is a well above average biopic featuring a royal Dench at the top of her game.

Her performance alone is worth the price of admission, and there’s enough dry humor to boot to make “Victoria and Abdul” a drama worth seeing this fall.

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