[Screen It]

(2017) (Judi Dench, Ali Fazal) (PG-13)

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Drama: The elderly monarch of England unexpectedly takes on an everyday Indian man as her close personal confidant and teacher.
It's the late 1800s in British controlled India and Abdul Karim (ALI FAZAL) is a Muslim Indian who works as a prison clerk. Due to his height, he's selected to present Queen Victoria (JUDI DENCH) -- the Empress of India -- with a ceremonial coin. When the other man also chosen for the duty is unavailable, a man by the name of Mohammed (ADEEL AKHTAR) is selected as his replacement. While he's reluctant and not particularly pleased with traveling to Britain or dealing with the British, Abdul is quite excited. So much so that he breaks royal protocol and looks the Queen in the eye during his presentation.

Having observed his handsome looks and bored with her daily royal routine, Victoria orders that the two Indian men become her footmen, much to the dismay of Sir Henry Ponsonby (TIM PIGOTT-SMITH), the head of the household and Dr. Reid (PAUL HIGGINS). It gets worse when the Queen elevates Abdul's status and assigns him as her personal confidant and teacher of all things Indian.

That doesn't sit well with Henry, Dr. Reid, and the rest of the staff, or Prime Minister Salisbury (MICHAEL GAMBON) and especially Victoria's adult son, Bertie (EDDIE IZZARD), who can't wait for her to die so that the throne can be all his. From that point on, Victoria and Abdul's platonic relationship continues to evolve as does resistance against that from everyone else.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Before heading off to see "Victoria & Abdul," the latest dramedy from director Stephen Frears that focuses on the later years of Queen Victoria, I would have sworn that lead actress Judi Dench had embodied monarch characters maybe five or six times over her long career.

Alas, my cinematic trivia (and memory) was off as she has done so only twice before -- once as Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love" (for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and then as Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown" (that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress).

But she did both so well that not only could I certainly receive a royal pardon for my mistake, but also no one would fault Frears for tapping her to play Victoria once again, this time in an older state (both in real life and in terms of the character's onscreen status).

While it's still too early in the year for predictions about who will win the Oscar for best actress, there's little to no doubt that Dench will get nominated once again and thus join a very small group of performers who've been nominated more than once for playing the same character in different films.

Yes, she's that good, and while the veteran actress could most likely play this sort of role in her sleep or at least without much effort, you simply can't take your eyes off her while marveling at how seemingly effortlessly she inhabits the monarch and makes you believe no one could possibly play her better.

The film is quite enjoyable and entertaining as well, as long as you can get past some sticking points (that will bother some viewers and could go unnoticed by others). And the biggest one in that regard is how it rails against racism yet uses one of the cinema's oldest racist tendencies. While some slack can be given in that the story -- as adapted by Lee Hall from "Victoria & Abdul" by Shrabani Basu -- is based on true-life events that had figuratively and literally been whitewashed from history until being discovered in the early 2000s, the film utilizes the old "magic negro" story aspect.

Granted, Abdul is a Muslim Indian, but he's still a man of color and seemingly something of an always smiling simpleton. And when he ends up in the life of the troubled white protagonist (here, a lonely queen near the end of her life, bored out of her mind at the daily royal monotony), he magically lifts her out of her doldrums, puts a twinkle back in her eye, and a kick in her step.

Thankfully, while I was fully aware of what was going on, I didn't find that as egregious as has occurred in past films (others may disagree), mainly because the platonic chemistry between the two characters is so terrific. And that's even if Abdul (played by Ali Fazal in a charming performance) gets short-changed in terms of character depth, exploration and development as compared to his more famous and powerful counterpart.

Some viewers might also be offended by the film's light dramedy tone as related to the topic of British imperialism and rule over sovereign nations of people of color. Or that Abdul does not seem to have an issue with that, something that's quite noticeable, and never explained, especially as compared to the character's traveling companion.

He's played by Adeel Akhtar in a sort of pessimistic comedy relief sort of way where he's always complaining about being forced to remain in Britain rather than return home after a ceremony for which he was selected at the last minute as a replacement. Like the other related matter, however, I didn't find such imperialistic elements as either terribly troubling or distracting, most likely since this is a period piece (when such issues were generally accepted or overlooked) rather than a contemporary one. And probably due to the fact that the storyline's racism is directly addressed and the various "bad guys" are taken to task, mainly by the direct and indirect actions taken by the titular monarch.

And watching Dench playing a queen who puts such people in their place (including with a speech written by Hall that certainly qualifies as her Oscar moment and will likely be the clip shown during award shows) while also finding glimmers of hope and happiness toward the end is nothing short of entertaining and heart-warming to behold.

Since it's unlikely the actress will don the royal trappings of a monarch (especially this particular one) again, you should make every effort to watch Dench at the height of her acting prowess. I enjoyed her performance and the film overall and thus rate "Victoria & Abdul" a 6.5 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed September 25, 2017 / Posted October 5, 2017

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