Judi Dench is back as Queen Victoria, and to all intents and purposes she has continued on from where she left off in Mrs Brown (1997) – which was probably director Stephen Frears’s intention.
And it has to be said that the stories of John Brown the Scot and Abdul Karim, the Muslim from Agra, are uncannily similar. In the later years of her long reign (she was on the throne for 63 years), Victoria is presented as a lonely and morose woman who is still dressed in black as a gesture of mourning for her beloved husband Albert (who died in 1861). Crushingly bored with her regal responsibilities, she has lost the will to live. It is a not uncommon theme among English filmmakers, reluctant as they are to countenance the idea that their monarchs might be a bunch of over-privileged bludgers on the public purse. In any case, Abdul (Ali Fazal – who is much more handsome than the real bloke) is sent from India to present the Queen with a specially minted coin to commemorate her 60th Jubilee.
He breaks the ice of the Buck House court simply by looking into her eyes and, to the increasing aggravation of the Establishment, the couple develop an intimate bond – Victoria goes so far as to take him on as her ‘teacher’ and enthusiastically studies Urdu under his tutelage. The cheesiness of the screenplay is to be expected (it’s a bit like Roman Holiday without the Vespas), as is the snobbery and racism exhibited by the stuffed shirts, but for all the predictability, it is unarguably charming and visually splendid.
Dench is terrific without even trying, it goes without saying, but Fazal’s Abdul is perhaps too cap-doffing to win our unequivocal embrace, while Tim Piggot-Smith is most believable of all as the disapproving head of the royal household and Eddie Izzard’s Prince of Wales is perfectly piggish. Frears bends over backwards to take the ultimate PC line on the burqa, but otherwise I enjoyed the film heaps more than I expected