MOVIE REVIEW: Victoria and Abdul's storytelling is a stretch
A LONG time after John Brown... came Abdul Karim.
There are echoes of Queen Victoria's "inappropriate" relationship with her gallant Scottish servant in this autumnal postscript to Mrs Brown (1997), based on the true story of the long-reigning monarch's unlikely friendship with an Indian clerk.
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But if the courtiers were upset by the undue influence exerted by one of their own, imagine how they reacted when a Muslim infidel usurped their places in the Queen's affections.
Where the first film, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare In Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) took a fairly straightforward biographical approach to its subject, Victoria and Abdul plumps for a heightened, quasi-satirical register.
This allows Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) to touch upon some of the potentially ugly ramifications of the story without becoming too entangled by them.
His previous project, Florence Fosters Jenkins, about a tone-deaf heiress who funded her own Carnegie Hall concert, was similarly surface-skimming.
Both films appear more substantial than they are thanks to tour-de-force performances from their heavyweight stars.
Reprising the role of Victoria two decades on, Dench's ageing, disillusioned monarch is every bit as meaty as Meryl Streep's vain, entitled dreamer.
The actresses embrace their characters' flawed humanity so forcefully, their creations teeter, at times, on the edge of grotesque.
When Victoria and Abdul opens, Dench's septuagenarian Queen has pretty much given up the will to live.
In the morning, four or five servants are required to haul the morbidly obese monarch out of bed.
She nods off during official lunches and her table manners are so gluttonous, it's enough to put everybody else off their food.
Abdul (Ali Fazal), who travels from Agra to England to present her with a ceremonial coin, represents novelty and exoticism.
In his presence, she rediscovers an appetite for life.
Of course, it helps that the interloper is tall, dark, handsome and extremely charming.
Before long, she has appointed him as her Munshi, or teacher.
The courtiers, who have Abdul pegged as an opportunistic charlatan, are determined to reveal his true colours.
But not even her personal physician's revelation that Abdul is riddled with gonorrhoea causes Victoria to doubt her Munshi.
Audiences are likely to have a few more questions.
The film's re-positioning of Victoria as a racially progressive monarch is also bit of a stretch.
Dench's imperious performance keeps the film afloat, but as a piece of storytelling, Victoria and Abdul is disturbingly glib.
Victoria and Abdul opens on Thursday.
Victoria and Abdul
Stars: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Tim Pigott-Smith.
Director: Stephen Frears
Verdict: 2.5 stars