Victoria & Abdul

Queen Victoria seemed to like the company of strong-willed men.  There was, of course, her late husband, Albert who guided and protected her through the treacherous early years of her reign.  Then came John Brown, a gruff Scotsman, played by Billy Connolly in the 1997 film Her Majesty Mrs. Brown. (Judi Dench played Victoria in that film as well.)  And now in a sequel of sorts, Dame Judi returns in Victoria and Abdul.  This time she latches onto an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal.

Her advisors and her family object to the friendship.  Sir Henry Ponsonby, played by Tim Pigott-Smith, is the head of her household staff and is quite alarmed at Abdul’s growing power.  As is her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, played by Eddie Izzard.  Victoria is in her eighties; her health is clearly failing and they want her last few years to be scandal free.  Especially if the scandal involves a brown person of low birth.  As Abdul grows in royal favor and his antics become more and more outlandish, these enemies plot harder to undermine him.

And that’s the main problem with the film.  The plot is repetitive and the occurrences don’t really build in intensity.  There’s a sameness to it that makes the stately pace to the film seem glacial.  Consequently there is no feeling that these enemies pose any kind of threat.  At one point Bertie and Sir Henry threaten to have Victoria declared insane.  Nothing comes of it except for a nice speech by Judi Dench.

Also it’s never explained why Abdul was attracted to the Queen.  Her motivations, of course, are well known.  She mourned Albert and for most of her life looked for that kind of relationship again.  But why would he be so infatuated?  It might have been his love of ceremony and romantic stories, but it’s certainly not clear.

The real reason for making a film like Victoria and Abdul is to show off the costumes and sets which are wonderful here.  It is also a chance to see Judi Dench deliver fine speeches and one-liners and to pick up some more awards.  Every time she puts on a tiara some engraver in Hollywood puts her name on an Oscar nomination.

Victoria and Abdul is in short Oscar bait.  And not in a good way.  It’s the classic great performance wrapped up in a mediocre film.  If you don’t care about the Academy Awards it can probably wait until it’s out on DVD.

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