Review: Victoria & Abdul

Dubious racial jokes and dodgy acting abound in this tottering trifle only saved from absolute disaster by a game Dench. Right royally rotten.

As outlined in ABC presenter and author Julia Baird’s brilliant biography Victoria the Queen, the Empress of India’s besotted devotion to and courtly elevation of the handsomely tall Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old humble jail clerk and Muslim man from Agra, was a source of some considerable scandal in the royal household during her dying decade.

Sent as an emissary to the 68-year-old and 16-year widowed Queen in the midst of Golden Jubilee celebrations, Karim was her second such fascination with a lowly servant after Scottish groundsman John Brown who died five years before his arrival. Karim’s unexpectedly extended stay, shockingly garlanded with an official role as the queen’s spiritual teacher or Munshi, is prime historical material for Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul.

A sequel of sorts to John Madden’s endearing Mrs Brown, as Frears heavy-handedly reminds his audience, Judi Dench again plays the aging monarch who scored her both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, plus an Oscar nom, though actually two decades later. Once more, she excels, but sadly there’s very little else to recommend about this cringing and often culturally offensive frippery that does a dreary disservice to far more interesting source material.

Part of the problem is that, despite the title, Dench has to carry the film almost single-handedly, at first suggesting a romantic attachment and then more motherly.

That’s partly because playwright and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse), working from the non-fiction book by author and journalist Shrabani Basu, thoroughly fails to flesh out Karim – who may or may not have been a manipulative influence on the queen and most certainly was targeted by the royal household because of his race and religion – or his family ties.

Further weakening the film, he’s played without much gusto by Indian star Ali Fazal. Co-star Adeel Akhtar, as Karim’s similarly pressed into service compatriot Mohammed, has even less to do, generally subject to off-colour racial profiling jokes as leery as they are leaden. He’s the only person who even vaguely interrogates the atrocities wrought by the British Empire in India, though never at any great length.

Eddie Izzard, a late addition as Victoria’s son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, eager to ascend to the throne and disgusted by his mother’s affections towards this lowly man and her Hindustani lessons, adds some late interest. Though, in line with Frears’ embarrassingly broad strokes very far from his brilliantly nuanced My Beautiful Laundrette or even the magnificently wrangled melodrama of Dangerous Liaisons, he’s depicted as something of a hammy pantomime villain. In these fraught Islamophobic days, the echoes are clear, but Frears seems unwilling or unable to explore that angle in any meaningful way.

Dench manages to steal rare moments of emotional weight amidst the wobbling trifle, but while the bleeding heart credentials of the empress smell a wee bit suspect, Baird makes a good case for this in her fascinating book. It’s a real shame Frears doesn’t, with this rosy colonial glow stinking as bad as the recent Viceroy’s House. Yes, the production values are as sparkly as the stolen and savagely cut Koh-i-Noor diamond, and fans of Netflix drama The Crown will no doubt find something to serve their royal addictions until season two drops.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords