Stephen Frears’ whimsical retelling of the platonic love affair between the elderly Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her much younger Indian manservant (charismatic newcomer Ali Fazal) is uneven but endearing, a tempest in a Mad Hatter teacup. Twenty-four-year-old Abdul (Fazal), a common clerk at an Agra jail, finds himself plucked from obscurity for the most arbitrary reasons — he’s there, and he’s tall enough — to accompany what is essentially a fancy gold trinket from Bombay to Buckingham Palace to be presented at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Five thousand miles and four hard-tossed months at sea later, he and the equally randomly selected Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) finally face their grand moment in a formal palace dinner, somewhere between the fish course and the profiteroles. Trussed and dressed and sternly schooled in the extensive rules of royal approach — no sudden movements, no backs turned, and absolutely no eye contact — Abdul ignores them all, and the Queen responds in kind, instantly smitten by the “terribly handsome” stranger in the turban who dares to kiss her feet unsolicited.
Dench, the dame of dames, has already built a sort of one-woman canon of onscreen aristocracy; she even played Victoria once before, in 1997’s Mrs. Brown. Here she portrays the 70-something Queen as a sort of heedless late-life slob: slurping her soup, snoring at the dinner table, smearing puddings across her face like a 4-year-old at a birthday party. (There’s also lot of talk about the movements of the “royal colon”). But she’s terribly lonely, too, exhausted by all the political scheming and scraping for her favor and still mourning the loss of her two greatest loves, the late Prince Albert and treasured manservant John Brown. Her eldest son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), is a brittle toff in a silk smoking jacket. Her cohorts, played with sniffy hauteur by the likes of Michael Gambon, Tim Piggot-Smith, and Olivia Williams, don’t care that she seems happier and more invigorated by Abdul’s company than she’s been in years; they just want to get the ill-born brown man out of the picture.
Fazal, a Bollywood star who has made small inroads in American films — he basically wore sunglasses and served up three minutes of story exposition in Furious 7 — makes Abdul’s swift ascent to royal confidante and Munshi (an Urdu word for teacher) believable. It’s not hard to understand why his kindness and open-hearted curiosity captivated a woman starving for human connection, though it’s less heartening to watch the ugly machinations to remove him from his influential perch, and the cannon fodder his own ego and naiveté gave his many enemies. Frears (Philomena, Florence Foster Jenkins) glosses over certain realities of the era and is oddly explicit about others (you’ll learn both too much and not enough about gonnorrhea). But even through the film’s baggy third act and shamelessly sentimental conclusion, he maintains the sweet core of his story: A wildly unlikely, almost entirely chaste romance that would probably sound too fantastical to believe if it hadn’t actually happened. B