Victoria & Abdul is so close to being a straight-up parody of '90s-style Oscarbait that I'm not entirely sure that it isn't. Certainly, it has a pretty clear distinct sense of humor, frequently at its own expense as a indulgence in the genteel, nostalgic authoritarianism of so many films about members of the British royal family. And then you round a corner, and suddenly it's just nostalgic, without any ghost of shame about the fact that the movie is more or less entirely about two things: how the British Raj was, if not "good" for the Indian subcontinent, then at least perfectly harmless, and how Queen Victoria was so awesome and cantankerous that it would have just been better for everybody if she'd been an immortal dictator immaculately controlling every detail of everybody's life in the whole of the British Empire.

Also, it's about a third thing: that you can apparently still make substantial amounts of money by placing Dame Judi Dench in a movie that asks her to do not one solitary thing we haven't already see her do, perhaps even many times over. In this case, that's unusually, explicitly true: Victoria & Abdul is something equal parts unofficial remake of and unofficial sequel to 1997's Mrs Brown, the film that largely entrenched the Judi Dench Film as a recognisable arthouse subgenre, back when Americans almost exclusively knew her as James Bond's new lady boss from the two-year-old GoldenEye. That film, like Victoria & Abdul, is the story of how the aging, perpetually grieving Victoria found herself in the presence of a friendly man who reminds her of the power of human connection to face down a hostile world, while maybe, perhaps, stirring something very exciting down in her royally ascetic nether regions. And that film's male lead, John Brown, is explicitly and directly compared to this film's male lead, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who came from India during the Queen's jubilee to present an honorarium, and stayed to become one of her most beloved, trusted advisors until her death in 1901.*

So that's the thing, isn't it? John Brown was a Scot, and setting aside the thorny issue of Scottish nationalism, at least it shares an island with England. Abdul Karim was an Indian Muslim, a resident of the country that perhaps more cleanly and directly symbolises the hungry, destructive impulses of the British colonial project than anyplace else on Earth. This causes screenwriter Lee Hall and the rest of the filmmakers some difficulty. For obviously, one can't just ignore that. On the other hand, Victoria & Abdul is very much not interested in functioning as a referendum on British imperialism, despite the seeming fact that the real-life relationship of Victoria & Abdul could only ever have been a referendum on British imperialism even in the time that it was happening. No, this is just meant to be one of those films where, more or less regardless of the actual content of the film, one is meant to leave the theater happily nodding and cooing about how that Judi Dench is just so wonderful in everything, so funny but also able to turn on a dime and be completely serious. Whatever happens, we're mostly meant to enjoy Dench, not really what happens around her. A Scot, an Indian, an all-girl nudie show, it's all the same damn thing.

The result is a film coated with flop sweat as it attempts to foreground English imperial racism, but to do it in a "funny" way, and of course to largely absolve Victoria of any personal dark shadings. And this is the first of the ways in which it seems at least somewhat plausible that Hall and director Stephen Frears - whom I have greatly respected in the past, and hope to greatly respect again, though it seems that he and Dench reliably bring out the worst in each other - are just making fun of the whole damn thing, the patronising non-engagement with any sort of real-world politics that typfies the dry, shallow liberal filmmaking tradition that supposes that by saying that racial inequities have at one point existed, that is the same thing as doing anything about those inequities, past or present or future.

And then there's the matter of what the film is up to when it's not panicking about race, which is to present Victoria as a cranky old broad whose favorite thing is to make all the people resentfully attending to her even more miserable, as a way of keeping herself amused during her inexorable slide towards death (the film's confoundingly well-stocked cast of British character actors includes Tim Pigott-Smith, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, and in a specially prominent waste of his time and talent, Eddie Izzard as the borderline-matricidal Bertie, Prince of Wales, and future King Edward VII). This offbeat combination of political shrewdness and old-age cussedness actually threatens to give Victoria & Abdul a bit of a personality all its own, unexpectedly undercutting the romanticism with which American and British movies alike tend to treat British monarchs, and allowing Dench to play a character with some unsavory, even gleefully evil sharp edges.

Allowing. Not requiring. And sad to say, this potential avenue isn't one that Dench turns out to investigate very thoroughly. During the big heaving "I am QUEEN and FUCK all of you" speech in the film's last quarter (which has been thoughtfully seeded with a wide variety of extractable lines for the people cuing up the acting clips at the Oscars), Victoria observes that she has been greedily addicted to power, and that's just not in Dench's horny sweetie-pie performance whatsoever. Anyway, whatever is going on in the first hour that suggests that Victoria & Abdul is a snarky piss-take on the whole matter of soullessly polished royalty porn almost entirely disappears during the second hour, as it becomes a very sober, straight depiction of the petty squabbling of the people around the queen, as she grows ever weaker and ever more firm in her moral convictions and historically questionable anti-racism.

So there we are, back at that. The film is plainly intoxicated with Victoria; but what about Abdul? Fazal is fun enough in a surprisingly flat role as what amounts to an eager, starstruck royal watcher being given a chance to make a crabby old woman happy; the script keeps indicating places where some depth of shading to make him a character of dramatically interesting conflicts (he's nice, smart, possibly ambitious, and definitely an opportunistic liar), but it never provides him with that shading. He's just the friendly foreign eyes through which we get to watch Dench putting on a show. And there's the even thornier matter of Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar, giving the film's best performance, almost by default), the grim and grumbling Indian nationalist who accompanies Abdul to England, and gets to say all kinds of angry, factually true things about the Raj, mostly so the film can say, "okay, we dealt with that, now see how adorable it is when Judi asks for a mango!"

It's all trivial, pleasant tosh, mostly harmless except insofar as how outlandishly tastless, tone-deaf, and historically illiterate it is. Crimes that are all the worse for how palpably the film thinks it is Teaching Us a Lesson, and also that it is Good On Race. I suppose I can't begrudge anything that will allow so many nice retired ladies to have a fun afternoon at the movies - an odd career rut for the director of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid - but this is cheap and easy filmmaking, full of the shallowest pleasures.




*There are so many things to fault the film for, but the one that outraged me the most, despite its relative unimportance, is how absolutely impossible it is to track the passage of time from 1887 to 1901, as not one solitary character appears to age by more than a few weeks.