Judi Dench returns to the throne, reprising her role as the imperious British monarch Queen Victoria. Stephen Frears’ dramedy is inspired (somewhat) by real events, and finds the quite old queen in 1887, snoring away. Through a series of mildly comic scenes, we see that she is bored, weary and quite lonely (her beloved husband long dead). Relief comes in the bizarrely costumed form of Abdul (Ali Fazal), one of the queen’s subjects from Agra, India, who has been chosen to come to England to present a commemorative medal. As things happen in such films, the two strike up an unlikely friendship, with the seemingly guileless Abdul teaching the queen Urdu and tenets of Islam, and the queen gobbling it up, like she’d never once thought about any other culture. Naturally, this relationship causes great comedic consternation among the queen’s retinue, portrayed by a slew of notable British character actors. Also put out: the queen’s self-important pouty son Bertie, brought to life by comedian Eddie Izzard.
This is a film that is best enjoyed not thinking about actual British history, with all its complications with colonialism, race and class, nor any of its pesky facts. Instead, it should be measured against similarly BBC-produced period pieces, resplendent with gorgeous costumes, exquisite sets and parlor-room drollery. Dench is marvelous, of course. And if watching her stomp around demanding this and that because she is “the Empress of India” is wrong, well, surely most of her fans don’t want to be right.