All hail the Dame!
Judi Dench, who can really do no wrong, is in supreme form in her latest picture, once again taking on the role of Queen Victoria (after 1997's Mrs. Brown) and reuniting with that fine filmmaker Stephen Frears (who directed Dench to Oscar nominations for Mrs. Henderson Presents... and Philomena).
Victoria and Abdul is a truly splendid picture, even better than those three aforementioned films, not exclusively a showcase for its leading lady but also her irresistible leading man.
The picture opens on Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young clerk who ventures from India to participate in the Queen's Golden Jubilee. At this point toward the end of her reign, the Queen is lonely, in poor health and restless with the stuffy inner circle around her. She takes an immediate liking to the kind and handsome Abdul, a development that hardly sits well with the household's racist snobs.
As outside parties vie, to negligible success, to tear the duo apart, their alliance only strengthens, as Abdul instills in the Queen a greater sense of purpose and sunnier outlook on life.
Frears, whose Florence Foster Jenkins mostly left me shrugging my shoulders last year, has hit a real home run here - this is his finest, most satisfying endeavor since another Dame, Helen Mirren, floored us all with The Queen. Kudos to all crew involved, who have crafted one of the year's lushest, most sumptuous pictures.
The heart and soul of the film, of course, are Dench and Fazal, who have heaps more chemistry than what you'll find in 99 percent of romcoms these days. This turn is right among the top-tier of Dench performances, alongside the extraordinary likes of Mrs. Brown and Notes on a Scandal. But the real revelation here is really Bollywood star Fazal, who has a warm and winning screen presence and, like the audience, seems completely in awe of his co-star.
This year's race for the Best Actress Oscar looks poised to be a chaotic one, with a dozen or more turns in serious contention for nominations. Pretty please, Academy, don't forget Dench (and Fazal, while you're at it).