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Review: Dench gives 'Victoria and Abdul' royal treatment

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in "Victoria and Abdul."

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By RICK BENTLEY | Tribune News Service | Published: September 22, 2017

There are only a handful of actors who dramatically increase the quality of a film simply with their presence. Without the casting of Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in "Victoria and Abdul," the period film from director Stephen Frears would have been a passable story of how a woman, strangled by the confines of the monarchy, manages to reach out beyond the palace walls. Dench is such acting royalty that she elevates the tale to a more regal level.

"Victoria and Abdul" looks at the later years of Queen Victoria's rule at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Her constant concerns about world politics and family issues have left her in a despondent state. This changes when a young Indian clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), travels to England to be part of the queen's Golden Jubilee. What is supposed to be a short ceremony becomes a deep friendship as Queen Victoria convinces Abdul to become her spiritual adviser known as the Munshi.

The disregard for what has been normal protocol sends the staff and family members into a spin. None is more upset than her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the Prince of Wales. Despite all of the efforts to separate the pair, the relationship continues for 15 years.

Frears has already shown he has a knack for pulling back the royal robes to expose the more human side of the monarchy through his 2006 film "The Queen," which focused on Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) after the death of Princess Diana. As he did with that film, Frears shows with "Victoria and Abdul" that behind all the pomp and circumstance are people who live, love and laugh like anyone else on the planet.

He establishes that immediately in "Victoria and Abdul": In the opening sequence, Queen Victoria prepares for her morning meal. She is not only suffering from a variety of medical problems but her weight has made even getting out of bed an event. Dench shows how the queen is dealing with not only her physical restrictions but also the weight of being in charge of an empire where the sun never sets in the simple way she shuffles down a hallway. Great actors can convey a lifetime of emotions without saying a single word.

This sets up how beautiful the contrast is once the queen has found someone with whom she can talk without worrying about how her statements will impact the world or her family. Dench slowly turns up the energy so that by the time the queen reaches a new nirvana in her life, she has gone from beaten soul to energized ruler.

Dench brings so much to every word, wink and walk that it puts extreme pressure on those around her. Fazal has established himself in the Bollywood world but his being cast as Abdul gave him the biggest acting challenges of his career. He responds with a performance that doesn't get overshadowed by the work Dench does.

He has the tough task of playing an eternal optimist. This is not easy because he had to find the right amount of energy to counter the funk that has encompassed the queen without going too far and making the role a caricature. Fazal manages to do that and in the process makes the scenes with Dench even stronger.

Izzard has become very dependable in playing characters who become mired in frustration. He understands that there are levels to disliking someone or something that goes from annoyance to hatred. He handles each step with great skill.

Frears uses these actors to make the screenplay by Lee Hall (based on the book by Shrabani Basu) a light look at a relationship between two very different people. At times, their connection seems like the loving link between a woman and the son she would have liked to have had, while at other times there's a deep pure love between the two.

Hall's script never digs into any examination of how this unique relationship impacted the political, social and economic elements of the time. The approach is more like one used to make a Hallmark romance movie, where the story stays at a superficial layer allowing the connections and misconnections between the players tell the story.

Frears could get away with that because of Dench. Her acting gravitas is strong enough to make even the lightest of stories automatically feel like they have more girth. And that's what happens with "Victoria and Abdul."

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VICTORIA AND ABDUL

3 out of 4 stars

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith.

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language

Running time: 112 minutes.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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