Judi Dench just has to look at the camera and one can become riveted, as is the case with her entertaining performance in “Victoria & Abdul,” based on a true story. Directed by Stephen Frears from Lee Hall’s script, the film stars Dench as Queen Victoria, who amusingly defies her aides by elevating a lowly man from India to a favored position under her rule.
There is humor in the early portrait of Victoria, who is shown liking to eat rapidly, which means that those who eat at a normal pace at a royal dinner will have their food snatched from them before they finish, which happens ritually when the queen is through. Frears, a wise and accomplished director, mines much humor throughout the film, which gives his audience a jolly good time.
Contributing importantly, of course, is the portrait of the Indian, Abdul Karim, by the excellent Ali Fazal. Abdul is unexpectedly plucked to be sent to London with an equally surprised friend to present a special coin to the queen. Victoria becomes very much taken with Abdul, as his looks, charm and manner appeal to her and as a result help her take notice not only of him but of the strange land that she rules.
The more all in her court are upset by this and scheme against her, the more determined she is to have her way, and she makes Abdul her teacher (“munshi”) and keeps bestowing upon him the honor of promotions. Fazal is endearing in his portrayal, and although at times the film gets plainly hokey, it is nonetheless fun to watch.
Dench is shown in vivid close-ups, with every mark of aging upon her face. She is such a remarkable actress that she carries the film with consistent power, whether suddenly feeling betrayed, showing her graciousness or putting down her detractors with royal authority. Indeed, in terms of cinema royalty, Dench is herself a queen. A Focus Features release. Reviewed September 22, 2017.