Imagine a version of “The King’s Speech” that’s set in 1887, not 1939. The king is a queen, and the imperial subject who educates a British monarch isn’t Australian but Indian. What the monarch learns to overcome isn’t a speech impediment but racial prejudice. And instead of being George VI the ruler in question is his great-grandmother.
There you have “Victoria & Abdul.”
It’s based on one of the odder footnotes to Victoria’s 63-year reign. Late in life, the royal household included a Muslim servant named Abdul Karim . Victoria treated “Mr. Karim” with a degree of affection and respect that raised the ire of members of the royal household.
If this sounds familiar, minus the multicultural aspect, it may be because of a previous version of Judi Dench playing Victoria. “Mrs. Brown” (1997) recounts a similar historical situation. The younger queen, still grieving from her husband’s death, became close to a Scottish servant, John Brown. In “Victoria & Abdul,” a particularly sour lady in waiting (Olivia Williams) refers to Karim as “the brown John Brown.” In fact, when Victoria and her retinue visit Balmoral, Karim, who usually wears Indian-themed garb, appears in checked Scottish tweeds. He laments their scratchiness.
Is there a more monarchial actress alive than Dench? She could play Victoria in her sleep. In a few scenes she does (the queen snores). As written, Karim is more exotic puppy dog than flesh-and-blood person. Endearing and deferential, he’s a scratchily dressed Gunga Din . Ali Fazal (“Furious 7”) has the thankless task of making him plausible. He succeeds. As head of the royal household, the late Tim Piggott-Smith excels at consistent consternation. Eddie Izzard seems to be suffering from perpetual heartburn as the Prince of Wales.
Stephen Frears directed with customary professionalism, though he’s done the royal thing before, and better, with “The Queen” (2006). Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot,” “War Horse”) did the screenplay. It’s the sort of script where someone says with a straight face, “I think you should inform the Kaiser.” And when someone else asks “Why would you like to learn Hindi, your majesty?,” Victoria replies, “I’m the Empress of India.” Point taken.
“Victoria & Abdul” has something for everyone. It’s a travelogue, with ooh-and-aah scenes of Agra, Florence, and royal residences at Windsor, Balmoral, and on the Isle of Wight. It’s also costume drama, biopic, comedy of manners, soap opera, and indictment of discrimination. Which predominates? You get to decide, since Frears and Hall don’t.
That “Victoria & Abdul” has elements of each is readily apparent. What’s not so obvious is how reactionary the movie is. It’s the wise, all-seeing monarch who deplores “racialism” and is a multiculturalist. This Victoria is so ahead of her time she even refers to those she rules over as “citizens” rather than “subjects” (Wall has a knack for tin-eared heedlessness). “Victoria & Abdul” may be a plea for tolerance, but it’s a plea from on high. There’s a reason the names in the title don’t appear in alphabetical order. Abdul is the far more interesting character, but it’s her majesty the movie dotes on. God save the queen? Oh yes, and God help the rest of us.
VICTORIA & ABDUL
Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Lee Hall. Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 112 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements and language).Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.