"VICTORIA AND ABDUL" — 3 stars — Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Tim Piggot-Smith; PG-13 (some thematic elements and language); in general release
Moviegoers interested in the history of British-Indian relations are getting spoiled this year. Where Gurinder Chadha's "Viceroy's House" examined India's transition from British rule after World War II and the negotiations that created modern Pakistan, "Victoria and Abdul" goes back a bit further into history, to the 19th-century reign of Queen Victoria.
Director Stephen Frears' "Victoria and Abdul" — which announces itself over the opening titles with a cheeky, "Based on real events … mostly" — purports to tell the story of a little-known friendship between Britain's famous queen and a favored Indian subject.
We meet Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) in India in 1887 as he is plucked from his mundane labors as a prison clerk to deliver an honorary award to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in England. As he and his sidekick Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) make the journey and take in the grandeur of Victorian England, they almost come off as an endearing Indian answer to R2-D2 and C-3PO, overwhelmed and mystified by their alien surroundings.
This awkwardness leads to a couple of faux pas, but instead of banishing the pair back where they came from, the queen — intrigued by the good-looking Indian man, and to a lesser extent his sidekick — insists that the pair stick around for a while. The intrigue leads to a friendship between Victoria and Abdul, so the courier becomes footman and then the queen's personal language tutor as she tries to become more familiar with her Indian subjects.
The whole process unfolds with a charming, lighthearted tone that fans of British comedy will find familiar. One comic scene early on shows the queen and her subjects trying to enjoy a fancy outdoor meal while practically getting blown away by frigid Scottish winds.
Such humor offsets the rumblings of the queen's English subjects, who balk at her accommodation of what they see as barely more than savages. It doesn't help that Abdul is also a Muslim, given their recent rebellion back in India.
This tension grows as the story moves along, and then actually marks a dark turn toward the film's second half as circumstances change. Given the candid opening titles, it's difficult to know how much of the story to take as historical fact, but its message comes across clearly regardless.
The tone change probably marks the strangest obstacle in a film that mostly provides an acting showcase for its leads — particularly Dench, who is already generating Oscar rumblings for her performance. Fazal has a warm and appealing presence as the humble Abdul. Michael Gambon also turns up in a supporting role, and that feels fitting since he is also featured in "Viceroy's House." Eddie Izzard essentially plays the bad guy as Bertie, the Prince of Wales and the most skeptical of Queen Victoria's subjects.
Even if "Victoria and Abdul" is a lightweight next to bigger historical films, Frears' effort is worth a look, even if only for the sake of a little charm and quality acting.
"Victoria and Abdul" is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language; running time: 112 minutes.