Burdened by years and sorrows, Queen Victoria is a sad and diminished figure at the start of “Victoria & Abdul.”
But then at a palace banquet an Indian retainer with an engaging smile catches her eye and something within her sparks. A rejuvenation of the royal spirit begins.
So starts this splendidly mounted and and admirably acted film from director Stephen Frears (“My Beautiful Laundrette” and, most appropriately, “The Queen”; Elizabeth II in that one).
As Victoria, Judi Dench returns to a character she first played in the 1997 feature “Mrs. Brown” and the type of regal role that won her an Oscar the next year for her performance as Queen Elizabeth in “Shakespeare in Love.”
She has never been better than she is here.
Her Victoria is in the twilight of her reign. In her 80s, and after 60-plus years on the throne, having buried her beloved husband Prince Albert and years later her very close friend and servant, John Brown, she laments, “Everyone I have loved is dead, and I just go on.”
A fresh, sympathetic face and a very different perspective on life comes in the form of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a 24-year-old Muslim clerk from Agra summoned to England to present the Victoria with a ceremonial medal.
He’s entranced by the pomp and ceremony of Victoria’s court and feels an unexpected sense of devotion to the monarch.
His cheery openness and seeming lack of guile strongly appeals to the queen, who’s fed up with being surrounded by toadying members of her court and her scheming, disapproving son Bertie (Eddie Izzard).
Abdul, by contrast, seems refreshingly genuine. It’s the start of a beautiful and highly unlikely friendship.
Abdul was a real individual, though screenwriter Lee Hall, adapting the book “Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant,” by Indian journalist Shrabani Basu, offers a speculative interpretation of the nature and events surrounding their relationship.
She is the empress of India, but she knows very little about the subcontinent she will never visit. He opens her eyes by telling her about the country’s culture, most significantly the history of the Taj Mahal. He introduces her to Indian food. And, at her insistence, teaches her the Indian language Urdu.
He personalizes the country to her. This does not sit well with the members of her court, who are baffled and scandalized by their unconventional, and to these straitlaced Brits, unseemly friendship. They conspire to thwart it.
Dench submerges herself deeply in the role and does extraordinary work. Whether facing down rebellious members of her court with flinty determination, or, in a quietly eloquent soliloquy, expressing her weariness with the toll being queen for so long has exacted, she is a commanding presence.
A scene in which she sings “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from “H.M.S. Pinafore” lightens the mood and conveys the humanity hiding behind the royal mask.
Fazal, a prominent Bollywood star, makes Abdul an extremely sympathetic figure, friendly, eager, though not obsequious, even in a scene when prostrates himself to kiss the queenly foot. He projects charming good-natured sincerity and he is an effective foil for Dench.
With its colorful period costumes and its grand settings, some of them the actual locations where the real-life events took place, “Victoria & Abdul” is sumptuous entertainment.
Victoria & Abdul
☆☆☆ out of 4
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith.
Director: Stephen Frears
Running time: 1:52
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language.