For its first half hour or so, Victoria and Abdul is an impressive tightrope act. Director Stephen Frears balances this mish-mash of genres – part crowd-pleasing rom-com, part historical drama, part Foxcatcher-except-it’s-the-Queen – as the famously cantankerous Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), getting on in years, bonds with Indian clerk Abdul (Ali Fazal). For a while there, it seems like things are under control, as the film smartly balances broad laughs with a sharp excoriation of English colonialism (“Welcome to civilisation!” announces a nobleman bracketed by beggars) and a softly-softly examination of the seedier elements of the pair’s ‘friendship’.
But wobbles soon set in, as focus shifts from apparent protagonist Abdul to the Queen herself, and before long the film goes head over ass with a prolonged and tiresome focus on house – or, I suppose, Buckingham-Palace-hold – politics. There are countless films about how upper class English folk are stuffy and racist (or “racialist”, if you prefer), or about ‘touching’ if chaste friendships … Victoria and Abdul could have been something more, while still being light-hearted entertainment. Instead, it shoves what sounds like a truly extraordinary moment in history into a biopic-shaped box and sands away any sharp edges. Not boring, but certainly bland.