A British monarch. An Indian commoner. If they can get along, then why can't we? Or at least that seems to be the question posed by Victoria & Abdul, director Stephen Frears somewhat true tale of the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a young Muslim servant-turned-trusted-companion named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).

You see, Victoria's celebrating her 50th year on the throne, and now that she's empress of India too, Abdul is plucked from his lowly position as clerk at an Indian prison to take the four-month journey to England and present her Royal Highness with a special coin. He's given a short but stern list of instructions: Don't talk to anyone. Walk backwards after presenting the gift. Don't make eye contact. Well, Abdul manages 2 out of 3. He's a free spirit and can't help but taking a quick peek at Her Highness, and since there's two hours of movie left, Victoria obviously returns the glance. She's intrigued by the handsome foreigner who doesn't quite follow the rules. I mean, the woman is 72 — all the pomp and circumstance is getting a little tiring.

And so to the horror of everyone — her personal secretary (Tim Pigott-Smith), the prime minister (Michael Gambon), and her meddling heir Bertie (Eddie Izzard) — she spends more and more time with Abdul, eventually asking him to be her munshi (a Hindi term for teacher). While the three scheme to send Abdul back to India with all the cleverness of the hyenas in The Lion King (read: not much cleverness going on here), Victoria and Abdul take walks in the park, where they share memories and stories, and even plan a retreat alone to her cottage in Scotland (don't worry the pair's relationship is purely platonic.) Even though Victoria is empress of India, she's never been, and she sees Abdul as her conduit to a whole new world (sorry). Abdul is only too happy to oblige. He talks about his homeland the way a schoolboy talks about his Christmas loot. The Indian tourism office should be paying him a commission.

All right, so giddiness is hard to do on screen. It really is. Not that it doesn't keep screenwriters from employing flowery metaphors, like how life is like a rug, with all colors of people serving as different colored threads, coming together to form a masterpiece. Yeah. This actually comes out of Abdul's mouth. Naturally since he's from the Orient, his lines are about carpets and monkeys. The story earnestly fosters a friendship blind of race and class but can't help making a few stereotypes itself. For his part, Fasal, a well-known Bollywood star, does a respectable job transitioning to Hollywood drama, even when delivering lines like these. He's convincing, even endearing. But his character isn't given a terrible amount of depth. He's unwavering in his allegiance to Victoria, almost to an archetypical degree.

That's the main problem with Victoria & Abdul — it attempts a story about complex themes (multiculturalism, imperialism), but all of its characters are two-dimensional. Even Victoria, played by the magnetic Judi Dench, is hilarious and a delight to watch, but it's hard to say she's a complex character. She's the hero. The Mufasa. She has an absolute ethical core and never falls into the same traps of racism and bigotry that the colonialist court around her can't help themselves from engaging in. Her support for Abdul is unwavering and why wouldn't it be? Save one scene (gasp: Abdul didn't tell her something), the duo never talk about anything important. She doesn't ask him what people in India think about being a territory of Britain. She doesn't ask him if, you know, his wife is happy wearing a full burqa (her care for Abdul’s well-being is such that she lets Abdul send for his wife). Their relationship stays in the honeymoon period forever. And the film's protagonists, the trio of naysayers that includes the future King Edward VII, are so easy to out maneuver that they never really feel like a threat. In fact, a tough-as-nails Victoria putting these numb-nuts in their place over and over again feels more comedic than anything.


That's one thing the film does well: it's often laugh-out-loud funny. From Victoria snoring at the head of a banquet table to discussing her royal bowel movements with her doctor, Dench is a master of comedic timing. Both the script and its execution are charming, which makes this a not at all painful foray into the Victorian world — it's just not a terribly realistic one. In the current political climate, it's just hard to swallow an “aw shucks, we can all get along if we just get to know each other” plot. That's fine for a children's film, but to be part of the current conversation, Victoria & Abdul just isn't willing to do enough of the hard work. We don't hear anything else about Britain's role in India other than, you know, they're there. We don't know if Abdul is teaching Victoria about India because she plans to engage with the country or if it's all just an after-tea novelty. It's a film that asks us to forgive and move on, without taking ownership of any of the underlying issues. Like the rotten mango that finally makes its way from India to Victoria's table, it's just not satisfying enough.