National treasure and Matriarch of Movies, Judi Dench is one of those rare breeds of actress who can star in almost any film, no matter how dire or lacking said film was, and elevate it to nothing short of a masterpiece or hit. That’s not to say that her latest filmic outing, Victoria & Abdul, a dramatic portrayal of the elderly Queen Victoria’s unexpected friendship with a much younger Indian servant (mostly) based on true events is neither dire or lacking much.
The no-nonsense, straight-talking, stately and subtle, yet firm and fearsome sass of characters that Dench has previously played, such as ‘M’ in the James Bond franchise, plus her roles as monarchs in Shakespeare in Love, which bagged her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, and Mrs Brown, in which she ironically played Queen Victoria, meant she was an apt choice to play Victoria once more. The sharp wit of her blunt lines punctuated by her piercing glare and a twinkle in her eye worked in her favour in Victoria & Abdul.
A successful film for of such an accomplished award-winning actress, especially one of Dench’s advanced age (can you believe she’s nearly 83 and still going strong?!) couldn’t have come at a better time – a time when the last few week’s entertainment news have been dogged by accusations from high profile Hollywood actresses across the spectrum, from Rose McGowan to Cara Delevigne to Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein. The scandal has highlighted a deep-rooted gender inequality within the film industry, a sector in which many actresses claim is fraught with incidences of women being taken advantage of and getting paid less, while the senior roles within producing and directing tend to be occupied by men.
Clearly not every powerful man in Hollywood is a predator but it may be the case that those who are feel they have a high chance of taking advantage of women on the brink of their big breaks as many women might feel they don’t have long to forge a meaningful career on the silver screen. While it is accepted that many aging men, such as Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, can continue to star in big budget action flicks, it’s a sad fact that, bar Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and Julie Walters and Dench herself, it’s a challenge to count past the fingers on one hand the number of women over 50 who still enjoy prominent positions in films.
Anyway, I digress. Judi Dench isn’t the only jewel in Victoria & Abdul‘s crown. The film tells a refreshing tale of a love of companionship and loyalty, rather than the romantic kind, that transcends the lines and confines of race, class, age and stiff-upper-lip-British royal protocol. The opening scenes depicting Abdul’s (Ali Fazal) journey from India to England to fulfil his task of presenting the Queen with a prestigious coin as a token of gratitude of British-ruled India during her Golden Jubilee celebrations are brilliantly juxtaposed with scenes of Victoria getting ready for a stately banquet, illuminating the stark contrast in the class positions of the two protagonists, from Victoria slumbering in her grand four-poster bed, whilst Abdul kips in a hammock, to the monarch being surrounded by an entourage of servants, while Abdul’s hard work alone helps propel him forward in his position as a lowly clerk in India.
Although swearing isn’t usually an issue in films when used for comedy purposes with spot-on timing, profanities seemed a little unnecessary and excessive in a film of this nature. Humour, however, stemmed from Dench’s dialogue. When Abdul and his fellow servant and friend Mohammad (Adeel Akhtar) say their clothing is very scratchy after Victoria inquired as to whether they liked their traditional Scottish dress the Queen amusingly replies: ‘everything in Scotland is scratchy’. In another scene when Victoria’s head of the household (Tim Pigott-Smith) informs her that mangos only grow in India, after she requested one to try, the Queen quips: ‘Well I’m Empress of India so have one sent.”
The often underestimated Eddie Izzard wears his character Bertie the Prince of Wales so well that it’s almost impossible to tell it’s him playing the role. Unfortunately, what gems Victoria & Abdul boasts in terms of acting might, it somewhat lacks in plot, the narrative coming across as a little far-fetched, with Abdul’s character lacking substance and being in desperate need of being fleshed out more and the fact that literally every other character except the monarch practises a racist attitude towards Abdul being shoved just a little too much down audiences’ throats. Also, while you’d expect the film to revolve completely around the two titular characters and references are made to the Queen’s late husband, it would have been nice for the film to have portrayed a few scenes of Victoria ruling her people and glimpses of Victoria era England to add a little more context and richness to the film.
If you’re a history or drama fan the film is worth seeing. There are emotional moments of reflection where the Queen highlights that no-one can really authentically know the loneliness of life as a monarch, in which you enjoy no privacy and endure endless judgement and where Abdul isn’t there for Mohammad when his friend needs him the most, illustrating how easy it is to get wrapped up in ourselves and miss the bigger picture. Then there are moments where Dench’s character hilariously puts her disobedient household staff in their place and delivers a ‘don’t mess with me’ monologue, which is always worth a watch.