Victoria & Abdul
Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul earns its first of many chuckles from an opening title card that adds the qualifier “mostly” to its claim of being based on a true story.
The same term may also be applied to the film overall being a good one, though its early perkiness suggests nothing short of greatness.
Combining the geezer catnip of Judi Dench and India, the period dramedy gets rolling with bored, likely depressed Queen Victoria (the Dame herself) receiving an emotional boost from Eastern guest Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal, Furious 7), who quickly goes from ceremonial representative to Her Majesty’s footman and beyond.
For slightly more than two acts, the leads exhibit steady, infectious and playful rapport in the “getting to know you” phase, an easy chemistry aided by Victoria’s honest fascination with Abdul’s otherness and a desire to learn more about his country, people and customs.
Her genuine intrigue pairs well with Abdul’s perception of his summons as the highest honor possible, and it’s a joy to watch him relish every moment.
Injecting further humor into the proceedings are head of household Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) and his staff, who stand by and watch in comic bewilderment, though Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) is less willing to spectate and would rather go straight for the proverbial jugular.
Whereas a lesser film might let the royal antagonists turn stereotypically devilish and let the film’s pleasant tone become nasty in its final series of events, Victoria & Abdul maintains its charisma as Bertie and the house staff plot to expunge Abdul.
Credit goes to screenwriter Lee Hall, whose work on the likes of Billy Elliot and War Horse posit him as adept at crafting a feel-good narrative, though he nonetheless comes up a bit short in establishing what motivates the titular leads.
The incomplete characterizations hurt the film somewhat when the confidantes are challenged by these less openminded folk, but their sunny dispositions and the visually pleasing scenery — especially the exteriors — are more than enough to buoy the mood even as life doesn’t go our heroes’ ways.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Focus Features)