The Dame — Ms. Dench if you’re nasty — is dynamite in this warm story of unlikely friendship
Judi Dench is quite good in “Victoria & Abdul,” the way that Judi Dench is quite good in pretty much everything she does. Without her, the cracks would show in this story about a friendship that crossed age, racial, class and economic boundaries. With her, however, “Victoria & Abdul” is rather delightful, even if its edges are dulled to make it as simplistic as possible.
Dench is Queen Victoria, returning to the role that netted her an Oscar 20 years ago in “Mrs. Brown.” Here she’s in her latter years, nodding off at the dinner table and sleepwalking through her royal duties. When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a clerk from India, is called to present the Queen with a gift from his home country, he catches her eye. “I thought (he) was terribly handsome,” she tells her advisors.
And so begins the most unlikely of friendships, with Abdul opening Victoria’s eyes to new tastes and experiences — mangoes, for one — and Victoria enlightening Abdul on the setbacks of being Queen. “We are all prisoners, Mr. Karim,” she tells him.
Dench is luminous in the role; she’s tough and craggy and at other times warm and worldly. She understands the power and burden of her throne, and Dench brings might to the movie that it doesn’t earn on its own. Elsewhere, it’s predictable and condensed, with Victoria’s advisers predictably flipping out over the friendship (Eddie Izzard, as Bertie, Prince of Wales, is especially cartoonish). Prickly issues of colonization are glossed over in favor of enhancing the narrative of the two friends.
Whether “Victoria & Abdul” holds up to historical scrutiny is up for debate — the prologue says the film is “based on true events... mostly” — but Dench, as always, is the real deal.
‘Victoria & Abdul’
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language
Running time: 112 minutes