Back in 2014, Stephen Frears and Judi Dench's collaboration on Philomena took the awards circuit by storm. While the film didn't win the lion's share of trophies it was nominated for, it still remains a powerful film that won the hearts of critics, and audiences, alike. So upon hearing that Victoria and Abdul would team the two up again for their third film together, as well as marking a return to royalty with Dench's second time playing Queen Victoria, it was as if the Academy was being properly baited for a repeat. Unfortunately, Victoria and Abdul does not fall anywhere near those heights, but it does manage to be a fun and enjoyable film, in its attempt at just that.
All Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was supposed to do was go to England, present Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a ceremonial coin of minor importance, and go back to his home in India. But what was supposed to be a passing moment of pomp and circumstance turns into a friendship between the Queen of England and a man she's taken quite a liking to.
If you're going into Victoria and Abdul thinking it'll either be a deep examination of cross-cultural values or a serious costume drama of great self-importance, you're going to be very disappointed. Rather than take the completely serious route, this movie plays itself rather lightly for the most part, and it really does excel in this respect. If, however, you enjoy a mixture of mostly droll British humor, with some grounded and dour emotional notes, then Stephan Frears' latest film is perfect for you, as it lightens things up with genial charm, and absolutely gorgeous visual flair.
In fact, for a good portion of the first act, Victoria and Abdul acts as a comedy of manners, as Abdul's growing relationship with the Queen begins to make some people nervous, and causes everyone to speculate just what is going on between the two historical figures. However, it's when the film starts to shift gears into a more mournful gear in the second act that it starts to suffer its growing pains. By the end of Victoria and Abdul, the film has entered wholly dramatic territory that's meant to wring tears and inspire thoughts, which would have worked if the rest of the film wasn't so focused on the jovial relationship between Fazal's Abdul and Dench's Victoria. This doesn't render the entirety of the film a disaster, but rather, it leaves it a mixed bag that stands at the crossroads of being a delightfully dry comedy or a socially conscious drama.
The greatest asset that Victoria and Abdul has is the performances of its ensemble, with Judi Dench and Ali Fazal acting as bright and luminous suns to this film's galaxy of actors. Dench, as always, is in top form in her follow-up to her Oscar nominated performance as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown; showcasing that, as always, she knows how to portray regal grace and kind mischief. But even more impressive is Ali Fazal's efforts in the role of Abdul, as he more than holds up his end of the bargain in his scenes with Dame Judi. While the film's emotional finale may not have worked as well as it should have, his acting chops during those sequences are given quite a showcase. Apart, they're both spectacular, but together, their chemistry is undeniable.
As always, the question of just how accurate Victoria and Abdul is to the historical events that inspired it is raised. Though, as if to cheekily rebut these nit-picking efforts, the film starts with a title card that talks about how the film is "based on true events... mostly." Historical relevance or not, Victoria and Abdul makes for a mild, inoffensive entertainment that pleases fans of solidly acted historical fiction, beautifully photographed scenery and costumes, and all things British. But if this film were one of the desserts served to Queen Victoria herself, it would definitely be a Profiterole, as it looks denser than it actually is, but is still delightful in its lighter, puffier reality.