The greatest service this new trifle from director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) offers is to put forth a cinematic version of a hitherto unknown story of Queen Victoria’s friendly relationship with a much younger Indian man. The real story itself is rich with racial and caste prejudice; more politics than any one film could hold regarding Britain, India, and their connection; and possibilities of a unique exploration of age, friendship, and intrigue in the world of the royals.
Instead, the film follows the pattern of Frears’ latest film before this, Florence Foster Jenkins, beginning as amusing farce (though might to feel guilty about whom and what we are laughing at, especially the two Muslim women that arrive in the second half—badly done) and moving into more serious fare in the second half. The film opens promisingly enough with light fun being poked at both the British at the end of the 19th century and the Indians. The Brits and Indians both have reason to look upon one another as barbarians, and the opening lines about the film being based on a true story—mostly—seems to promise something of a romp through what could be a deadly serious study of an aging, lonely queen and the complications of a Muslim (“I thought he was a Hindu”) lower-caste interloper who may or may not have been what he seemed, tossing a rigid and judgmental circle of sycophants into a tizzy.
The serious possibilities are indeed introduced, one by one, almost as tough medicine that should only be administered in spoonfuls. Then they are dropped nearly as quickly as they are introduced. (Spoiler alerts galore….) Yes, he’s Muslim, not Hindi, which mistake could have been a ripe field for exploration. Oh, yes, he’s married (now we hear this?) Yet bigger revelations await, and their lack of follow-up is the film’s biggest mistake. He has gonorrhea, which is announced with gusto, and is never explained nor dealt with past the shock. And perhaps most ridiculous of all, he turns out to lie about the role of the Muslims in India during a certain event that is fascinating from a personal and political point of view, but which is dropped like a hot potato, which perhaps current political correctness determined it was.
The acting veers from solid to overblown. If this was Dame Judi Dench’s first film appearance, she would be hailed all over the world and name-dropped into nearly every Oscar Best Actress discussion. But this is Dench, after all, who has already won an Oscar for playing a queen and who played Victoria not all that long ago. So it might be tempting for the viewer not to notice how precise she is, how skillfully she attacks every scene, lovingly developing her character from sleepily and uninvolved to awakening and engaged to feisty and fierce. It’s a (typically) masterful performance unmatched by those around her, and set in a film that doesn’t deserve it.
Ali Fazal plays Abdul Karim, the young Indian who makes his way into the Queen’s heart and, uncomfortably for everyone else, her inner circle. He is tall and handsome, which might have been all he had to offer. But while he can’t match Dench’s work, he brings an easy connection with her in their scenes together that presents the likely connection that the Queen so enjoyed. He treats her as an equal while still recognizing her position, and a few of their scenes together demonstrate what a breath of fresh air he must have been for a tired queen surrounded by people waiting for her to die (no comment on any current situation across the pond…).
Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard and the legendary Michael Gambon all tend to chew the scenery as they surround Dench, but it may well be the writing of their parts and the direction that is to blame. Perhaps their innate talent kept their parts from being even more overblown than they are.
The saving grace of the film is the newness and surprise of the story itself. For those like myself, learning a new (mostly true) tale is of historical interest, and anything Dench does is always enjoyable to watch. It’s what the film fails to investigate that harms it. It fails to follow up on things that it announces with a flourish, and the darker aspects of Karim’s personality—his self-advancement, lies, and manipulation—are disappointingly not explored. Probably the best lines in the film come from his friend and servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who begins as the silly-but-funny comic second lead, and then has a marvelous moment ripping the British Empire to verbal shreds as he admits to the Queen’s advisors that while Karim is indeed self-interested, he is no more so than they.
Frears began his career with hard-edged films (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) about less than reputable people. His more recent work, including The Queen and Florence Foster Jenkins, but also Philomena and Mrs Henderson Presents, presents a softer and lighter touch with jokes in Part One and moving into somewhat darker territory in Part Two. Unfortunately, the “softer and lighter touch” translates a bit too often into superficiality and inconsistency of tone; it comes across as pandering. Dench is the main reason to see the film; for those for whom that is not enough, a Google search into the story will suffice.