Stephen Frear's "Victoria and Abdul" marks 20 years since Judi Dench returns to the role of Queen Victoria, a role which she garnered critical acclaim, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination in John Madden's underrated "Mrs. Brown". While "Mrs. Brown" focused on Queen Victoria's relationship with her servant John Brown in the years following the death of her husband, Prince Albert and the ensuing rumors and scandal following it, "Victoria and Abdul" follows similar, historically based ground, this time in the final years of Queen Victoria's life and her relationship with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Indian prison clerk brought to England for a normally forgettable moment of pageantry, who quite literally catches the Queen's eye and is soon swept into her confidence.
While "Mrs. Brown" explored the improbable friendship and possible romantic relationship between a grieving monarch and her less than royal servant, "Victoria and Abdul" crosses takes the approach of a dying monarch finding the figure of the son she always wanted (when plagued by an incompetent blood heir played admirably by Eddie Izzard) in a man who is far removed from her own social class. Frears takes the approach of a lighthearted dramedy in the opening two acts of the film, playing up the Queen's own ignorance of a country she is very aware that she is Empress of, coupled with a man away from his own family, eager to learn about the Queen, unafraid to speak his mind and teach her about his culture, religion and language, much to the chagrin of the Queen's family and inner cabal of political counterparts.
For the most part, "Victoria and Abdul" works as a serviceable endeavor of making the audience feel good about a privileged ruler demonstrating the ability to look beyond race and class and see the humanity in someone who would otherwise not be a blip on the royal radar. The film's screenplay is a rather pedestrian affair, offering serviceable, but uninspired dialogue only brought to life by Dench's performance which frankly, is just as deserving of praise as her original outing as Queen Victoria. Dench capture the years gone by since her beloved John Brown has past, and although she is self-admittedly approaching her final demise, Dench's Queen Victoria still commands the respect of a monarch and there are moments of ferocity that remind bit players and viewers alike who is in charge of the country.
Fazal's performance is a little less sculpted, instead following the pedestrian script with a safe performance that reminds viewers just how cliched and unoriginal "Victoria and Abdul" is as a whole package. Danny Cohen's cinematography is quite stunning and next to Dench's performance is the only consistent enjoyable aspect of the film. The English countryside is captured in exquisite detail and the beautiful set design is highlighted even in the most trite of scenes. Unfortunately, the film is a tough slog to finish, with a decidedly dark and cruel final act, that stretches the film to just shy of 110 minutes, "Victoria and Abdul" often feels like a film going in circles with numerous scenes of the Queen's family and confidants huddling around doors speaking of Abdul in racially tinged language that likely only stays south of outright cruel slurs for the sake of garnering a more marketable rating.
Ultimately, "Victoria and Abdul" is an exercise in nothing; apart from Dench getting to return to an acclaimed role, there's nothing nuanced in the film; it's a very obvious, very safe period piece that intends to do little more than wow viewers with royal drama and a "feel good" lesson in equality that is well-intentioned but hamfistedly executed. Add to that, a narrative that compresses 15-years of history in what feels like a few months, and "Victoria and Abdul" feels more at home as a TV film than an big screen production (interestingly enough, "Mrs. Brown" was originally intended for TV until Miramax saw potential in it). It's a decent enough companion piece to Mrs. Brown, but little more than a curiosity.THE VIDEO
The 1080p 2.40:1 widescreen transfer is a stunning technical piece; the previously mentioned cinematography is stunning with rich detail and vibrant, natural colors. Contrast levels are steady and natural throughout. The only quibble of note lies in interior shots where detail looks just a tad softer than expected.
The English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a fine audio presentation, with sharp and natural dialogue. The overall soundscape uses the surrounds subtlety to create depth to the environment. The low-end is natural for a period drama with the most activity through the films score. A Spanish and French DTS 5.1 track is included as well as a Dolby Digital English 2.0 track and English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
Bonus features consist of two brief (less than five minutes each) featurettes focused on the pairing of Dench and Faizal ("Judi and Ali") and the production design of the film ("The Look of Victoria and Abdul")
"Victoria and Abdul" is likely to resonate with an audience who likes their stories of social relevance neatly packaged in a less than two-hour package and with a healthy dose of "smart" humor. For all others, Dench's performance is worthy of at least one viewing and fans of "Mrs. Brown" for certain will want to watch the films back-to-pack to see the evolution of a character over two decades. Despite a stellar technical presentation, there's little to warrant a return viewing. Rent It.