Nearing the end of her life and her record-breaking reign over Britain and the Empire, Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria sought solace in the company and spirituality of her “munshi”.
According to Stephen Frears’ new film, this was a Muslim clerk, Abdul (Ali Fazal), plucked from the obscurity of Agra in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, and shipped to Windsor Castle to present her Majesty with a ceremonial coin on the occasion of her Jubilee.
Amid the fawning courtiers and boredom of yet another state banquet, the tall Indian catches the Queen’s eye and she soon requests his company, much as she did with her ghillie when he was Billy Connolly and she was Mrs Brown.
That was 20 years ago and Dench has hardly ever been bad in a movie since, even when she’s in bad movies. She’s great again here, better than the film, easily catching Victoria’s quick wit and imperious stare but adding shades of melancholy, cantankerousness and something approaching existential despair.
Not all of that is in Lee Hall’s script. Dench has the ability to find extra layers and the fact that she’s returning to a role doesn’t escape her instinctive intelligence here. I think she’s also digested a bit of what Jenna Colman’s been doing on the telly as the Young Victoria, and vestiges of that youthful mischief remain, dimmed by time, childbirth, grief and running the Empire.
As you might expect from a director such as Frears – who earned Helen Mirren her Oscar for The Queen – it’s British manners that come under the lens. The banquet scene, the lackeys, the court behaviour, the mandarins and the mangoes – all of it is handled with a distant, comic fascination at the pomp. Tim Piggot Smith, in one of his last appearances, is brilliant as Ponsonby, and that’s basically all one needs to say about him. Eddie Izzard’s a bit rum as Bertie – I couldn’t work out if he was trying to be funny or just whining to get out of his beard and tweeds so he could go off and do another marathon.
Michael Gambon is amusing as Lord Salisbury. In him and his whiskers nest all the haughty entitlement and ingrained racism of the Empire. “I suspect she’ll be wearing a burqa next,” he mutters as the ‘munshi’ gains more access to the Empress than even the Prime Minister.
So, while everyone gets a serious attack of the ‘munshis’, the titular pair stroll around the gardens and talk of exotic fruits and Urdu lesson. It’s a shame that, for all his handsomeness, Fazal can’t bring much depth to Abdul. Granted it must be tough to match Dame Judi but we never quite get the sense of the Empire striking back. It’s left to his comic sidekick Mohammed, played by Adeel Akhtar, to pine for India, succumb to the British chill and observe the rigmarole with some bitterness and hate.
Things do go a bit flat. Frears can go from smooth to impatient, abrasive even, from scene to scene. You can feel a restlessness settle in like drizzle when there’s little emotion or actual drama to replace the incidental fun of Victoria falling asleep in her soup or the quasi-Bunuelian absurdity of a tea party held in the Highland rain complete with Indians in tartan – “everything is itchy in Scotland”.
Frears is fine on the simpering customs and ridiculous royal protocol but seems oddly conflicted about the actual effects of colonialism and Empire. Perhaps he feels that has no place in a film precision aimed at people who still remember the swathes of pink on the world map in school? But I kept wondering if the Queen is full of remorse, even guilty about her plunder? Does she even know what’s going on in any of these places she’s never visited? She’s never seen a mango.
Maybe the V&A pun in the film’s title is as radical as Frears gets. It looks very much to me like an old-fashioned Raj fantasy. Maybe, like everyone else, he’s just in thrall to good Queen Victoria and, gawd bless her, the imperious, all-conquering skills of Judi Dench.