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Victoria & Abdul: My take on the movie starring Dame Judi Dench #book2movies [review]

If the last time you saw Queen Victoria onscreen was when the lovely, little 5'2" Jenna Coleman played Victoria as a very young woman, you will be shocked to see Dame Judi Dench as the same short in stature queen at age 81*. 

Oh, what a difference a lifetime makes! Dench has no vanity here, Dench, still lovely at 82, seems to have been aged badly for the film with sagging jowls, puffy skin, a soft face ravaged with wrinkles, and a neck that has fallen. Basically me in the not so distant future, but I digress.

Very near the beginning of the movie, as she digs into course after course of a banquet, you might even feel disgusted at how piglike Dench’s Victoria is, ripping meat off the bones, stuffing her face, chewing noisily, mouth open. She is greedy and bored, a woman who falls asleep at the table only to wake up in time to shovel spoonfuls of dessert into her mouth, the whipped cream dribbling down her chin. Queen Victoria is a woman, a queen, spoiled and bored, who has been catered to, too long.

Then along comes Abdul, played by the handsome young Ali Fazal (Furious 7). When Victoria is asked what she thinks of the coin he’s delivered—a tribute from the Indian Empire—the queen comments on what a handsome man he is.

And so it begins. Lonely, constricted because of her queenly obligations, desperately missing both John Brown (another servant who has a controversial relationship with the Queen) and her Albert, Victoria takes to Abdul immediately. It’s refreshing to be spoken to as a human being and she soonraises him up to be her munshi, her spiritual teacher. No fool, he plays to her needs, making the most of his opportunity, while he also develops a genuine affection for her. 

This doesn’t play well with the whole Royal household and the British government, all of whom are in an uproar. We hear their racist outcry: he’s colored, he’s ‘a wog’ and he’s a muslim, all of which she decries and all of which makes the racism very relevant to what’s happening in our own particular world, right now.

While I expected to enjoy Victoria & Albert simply because I’ve never in my life seen Judi Dench turn in a bad performance, I did not expect the movie to be so very funny. For example, Victoria, visiting Florence and having drunk a tad too much champagne, is happy to replace the acclaimed Puccini’s overly dramatic operatic singing with her typsy rendition of I am Called Little Buttercup from H.M.S. Pinafore. Victoria & Abdul is worth seeing for that scene alone. 

But that isn’t at all the only thing we get from Victoria & Abdul. We get a lovely, heartfelt story of the longest serving queen in England’s history relationship with a young man who awoke in her a renewed interest in the world outside her tiny cloistered life. A young man who makes the end of her life a happier time.

Like the song says, along with the sun, there’s got to be a little rain sometime. Bring hankies.

 If the film sparks your interest in the real life story of Victoria & Abdul, check out the book by Sharabani Basu.

*In fact, while Coleman was 5'2", Victoria was 5'0" and Judi Dench is 5'1".  

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