I’ve never fully understood Stephen Frears’ preoccupation with monarchy, nor do I share it — but I do appreciate what he can do with his favorite subject. As has been the case with the writer/director’s previous explorations of royalty, Victoria and Abdul captures the mundanity behind the spectacle of regality, humanizing impossibly powerful people without feeling disingenuous. With his latest film, Frears has delivered a subtle comedy of manners that gives Judi Dench one of her finest roles and still manages to offer up some genuine laughs and a surprising degree of pathos given its focus on a particularly ugly chapter of Western colonial oppression.
Victoria and Abdul’s reticence to lean into that ugliness, or even acknowledge it, is a major flaw in an otherwise enjoyable film. The subjugation of the Indian subcontinent under the boot heel of the British Empire is played as something of an afterthought, a quasi-comedic plot point occasionally voiced by a character that otherwise exists as a font of comic relief. While Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall never make any assertions of rigorous historic verisimilitude (a pre-title card reads that the film is “mostly” based on true events), the failure of the film to engage with the elephant in the room seems like a missed opportunity. The result is a film that comes across as slight to the point of triviality, and it’s a shortcoming that’s hard to overlook.
Dench steals the show as the aging Queen Victoria, whose budding affections for an Indian Muslim who haplessly happens into her sphere of influence throws the royal retinue into disarray. The supporting cast performs admirably, if necessarily marginalized in relation to Dench, and Frears’ reputation as a fine director of actors remains untarnished. Bollywood star Ali Fazal plays Abdul with an affable charm that’s alluring, but his one-note naiveté often verges on the implausible. A stacked deck of accomplished Brit character actors including Eddie Izzard and Michael Gambon do what they can with similarly underdeveloped roles, but ultimately Hall’s script is too myopic to grant anyone other than Dench a chance to contribute much more than set dressing.
Where the film manages to succeed it does so almost exclusively on the basis of its strong central performance, and Dench shines as the eponymous monarch. Dench’s Victoria is a thoroughly human Queen, displaying an emotional spectrum that ranges from absolute authority to touching vulnerability, often within the context of a single scene. While the film’s dramatic moments are undeniably impressive, Dench’s comedic timing is equally noteworthy — and more frequently overlooked in her extensive oeuvre. It’s a masterclass from one of the cinema’s finest working actors, and Frears has the good sense to get out of the way and let his star do the heavy lifting.
As a visual stylist, Frears has always struck me as a bit uninspired, and Victoria and Abdul has done little to disabuse me of that notion. His interiors show a solid eye for architectural detail, but his camera movements often seem to bear little semiotic impact. Those in the market for a bit of frivolous period fun will find plenty to enjoy, but unfortunately Victoria and Abdul seems destined to go down as second-tier Frears. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Fine Arts Theatre.