Stop us if this sounds familiar: A tall, dark, bearded servant of rough breeding comes from far away to suddenly charm a grumpy, widowed Queen Victoria and thus upend Britain’s royal court at the turn of the 20th century.
You were perhaps thinking of “Mrs. Brown,” starring Judi Dench as the monarch and Bill Connolly as her Scottish underling, John Brown? Well, hold on. A new movie has come along exactly 20 years later with an eerily similar plot. Either Victoria was a creature of habit in her attachments or her filmmakers are.
Substitute Connolly with Ali Fazal and you get “Victoria & Abdul,” a film about the then-most powerful woman on earth’s second unusually intimate relationship with a commoner. In this case, a Muslim from India in 1887.
Fascinatingly, Dench is back as the monarch, two decades after she played Victoria and earned an Oscar nomination for it. It’s a privilege to watch her revisit the crusty, we-are-not-amused queen, who is now in the twilight of her life. Dench is riveting, unsentimental, impatient and gloriously brittle.
Dench is well supported — the cast includes the marvelous Eddie Izzard, the late Tim Pigott-Smith and the imperious Michael Gambon — and the pomp and highly choreographed English ceremonialism is captured beautifully by director Stephen Frears.
There’s only one major problem: The man at the center, Abdul Karim. He remains a blank canvas, his motives unexplored, his interior uncaptured. He is called “the brown John Brown” and offers no riposte. The title of the film promises us two people but we only get one.
Perhaps screenwriter Lee Hall meant to leave him a cypher, allowing the English to try to define him, but that’s being generous. It’s hard to leave this film and not think Spike Lee’s concept of “magical Negroes” needs to be expanded for other people of color.
The movie is based on journalist Shrabani Basu’s book “Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant.” The filmmakers have taken factual liberties — the film is “based on real events … mostly,” which is very cute but meaningless.
Fazal’s Karim smiles a lot, seems enchanted by English weather and, at their second meeting, without provocation, prostrates himself to kiss Victoria’s feet. Why? He thought it would “cheer her up.”
British films seem to be looking backward these days on their legacy in India. In “Victoria & Abdul,” the Empress of India comes off honest, loving and decent. But the film doesn’t Indians tell their story or any story without a gauzy English filter. That seems tone deaf as well as stupid.