In “Victoria & Abdul,” a gilded let’s-tweak-the-Empire-but-not-really talkfest duet directed by Stephen Frears, our first encounter with Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) comes during a lavish lunch for her majesty’s golden jubilee. It’s 1887, and the 68-year-old monarch has been placed at the head of a dining table as long as a cricket field. She’s so bored and depressed that she can barely stay awake, so she eats herself into a food coma and looks ready to be wheeled out — that is, until Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a 24-year-old Indian clerk who’s been chosen to present her with a mohur (a gold coin minted by British India), approaches her royal highness. Their eyes meet, agleam with a delight that’s nearly flirtatious, as if Tinkerbell had just sprinkled fairy dust on both of them.
And so begins a love affair: not a literal one, but a mother-son, master-servant, disciple-guru bond that will stay in place, and grow, for the next 14 years, right up until Victoria’s death, in 1901. There really was an Abdul Karim, and though “Victoria & Abdul” has a cheeky introductory title that says “Based on true events…mostly,” the movie, written by Lee Hall (who drew upon the 2010 book by the Indian journalist Shrabani Basu), sticks close to the particulars of how he came to be a special companion of Victoria’s. She referred to him as “the Munshi,” a word that to Victoria, in the movie, means spiritual teacher. But he’s really her elixir. His very presence makes her feel good.
If Queen Victoria, from minute one, seems not only familiar to us but, indeed, like an old friend, that may be because Dench, 20 years ago, in her first lead movie role, played her in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), another drama about the queen’s “inappropriate” relationship with the most unlikely of underlings. Then too, in the couple of decades since, Dench has played nearly every role as if it were a species of misbehaving royalty: the cutting wit and puckish superiority, the way she has of laughing — or crying — invisibly beneath that dour scolding visage. Dench is 82 now, but she remains the world’s most formidable pixie, and in “Victoria & Abdul” she’s in her element and in her snappish, showbiz-melancholy prime. The film surrounds Dench with a coterie of stuffy arrogant British fools for her to not suffer gladly, each one adding to her (and the audience’s) satisfaction.
And then there’s Abdul. He is tall, twinkly, and yummy handsome, with thick shiny black hair and a beard that makes him look like Paul McCartney in “Let It Be.” The Indian actor Ali Fazal, a Bollywood star who made his Hollywood debut in “Furious 7” (2015), plays him with a sing-song voice and a polite sweetness that never lets up. When Abdul first sees Victoria after that lunch, it’s at another public event, and, rather startlingly, he gets down on the ground to kiss the queen’s foot. (She doesn’t ask him to; he just does it.) Later on, he talks to her, in starry-eyed tones of gentle rapture, about the Taj Mahal and the wonders of Indian cuisine (especially the glories of mango chutney), and he agrees to teach her Urdu, which he calls the most “noble” of Indian languages. When he reveals that he’s married, he tells Victoria that she means more to him than his wife does.
Victoria, too, looks up to Abdul, at times the way the Beatles did (however briefly) to the Maharishi: as an exotic force of enlightenment. Yet the word munshi was used, at the time, to mean clerk or secretary, and the central relationship in “Victoria & Abdul” never pretends to be one of equals. Abdul, as a man, remains dutiful, devoted, saintly, obsequious, servile. Maybe that’s accurate, maybe not, but in a mainstream middlebrow drama coming out in 2017, it gives one a bit of pause, because it reinforces a point-of-view toward the British colonization of India that comes off as myopic and, frankly, a little too old-fashioned for comfort.
“Victoria & Abdul” is a pleasant enough entertainment, and it will bring the inevitable awards chatter Dench’s way (is her acting ever less than pinpoint? Never). But as prestige period pieces go, it’s far from top-drawer (more like second drawer, or even third), because its cozy lack of enlightenment is echoed in the standard but far from scintillating play of its drama. What we once liked to call “Masterpiece Theatre” movies — an archaic term even before “Downton Abbey” came along — were built upon a certain vital and up-front nostalgia for the age of manners, civilized romance, and courtly Britishness. But “Victoria & Abdul” is a movie that appears to be specifically nostalgic for the relationship between England and India under the British empire.
Thirty-five years ago, in a movie like “Heat & Dust” (1983), the Merchant Ivory team explored the symbiosis of India and England in a way that was far more complex and morally shaded. “Victoria & Abdul” does voice some anti-colonial sentiment, but it’s all placed in the mouth of Abdul’s angry comrade, Mohammed (Adeel Ahktar), who calls the British “barbarians” because of all the animal parts they consume. His ire is treated as a semi-joke, but the real issue is why Abdul, in all his radiant intelligence, is portrayed as a man who never once longed for his country to be free of the yoke of British occupation. I’m not arguing for an anachronistic reading of history, but when Victoria refers to herself as the Empress of India, and Abdul just smiles on, the movie comes close to portraying it as if that were the natural order of things.
Of course, this being an American-British Oscar-bait production, there are all these marquee British actors playing stuffed shirts: Michael Gambon as the Prime Minister, Olivia Williams as Baroness Churchill, Eddie Izzard as Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales. They turn up their noses at Victoria’s guru-servant and speak of how the Indians are of a “lower” order, and the audience gets to silently tut-tut them, which makes it seem as if the movie has its heart in the right place. But the film’s true strategy is to “dignify” India by holding up a superstar saint like Abdul as its flawless representative. That’s not enlightened — it’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” served with mango chutney.