You’ve seen Victoria & Abdul before.
Not just in the fact that it’s the usual, unchallenging BBC Films crowd-pleasing fare put out to soothe the masses, but also because it’s 20 years since Mrs Brown was released.
In that film, Billy Connolly shared an unconventional friendship with Dame Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria after the death of her husband.
This time, two decades on, substitute Brown for an unassuming, twinkle-in-his-eye Indian servant called Abdul, who breaks the rules when looking the Queen in her eyes during his act of state-sponsored supplication.
Enamoured with the daring nature of his action and what she sees as a kindred defiance to being trapped in societal expectations, Victoria makes Abdul a confidant. That’s much to the chagrin of the household and the generally blustered (and slightly racist) echelons of government as embodied by Michael Gambon’s prime minister and Eddie Izzard’s haughty and belligerent prince Bertie.
But, defying convention, Victoria grows closer to Abdul as the rift threatens to tear apart the Royal Household.
It’s not that Victoria & Abdul is a clanger by any means. It’s simply that it’s all so familiar and so incredibly formulaic in its desire to not challenge audiences that it becomes increasingly bland in its execution as it heads into its tear-jerking final section.
While Ali Fazal’s initial boundless enthusiasm and naïveté gives Abdul a feeling of once-over-lightly and makes the household members united in their anger feel more caricature than character, Dench’s dive deeper below the surface for Victoria marks her turn out from the oh-so-familiar fare of the film.
It’s a prestige picture, make no mistake, but its target audience is looking to be placated rather than challenged.
Whether it’s speeding through a state meal to get away from insufferable strangulations of reigning or softly revealing her anguish that others die while she just goes on, Dench’s heart and subtleties of performance bring life where elsewhere there is nothing but mawkish predictability and borderline unoriginality.
There’s solid support in the wings though.
Notably from the much underrated and slightly cliched use of the brilliant Adeel Akhtar (Utopia) whose comic timing and well-worn use of a weary eyebrow is deftly exercised, but who becomes sadly more sidelined as the film goes on.
Equally Izzard gives good exasperated as Bertie, the man who would be king were it not for the stubbornness of his mother.
Victoria & Abdul is one for the twin-set older generation. It’s a prestige picture, make no mistake, but its target audience is looking to be placated rather than challenged.
A celebration of a Britain at the height of its Indian empire (and a post-Brexit nod to an England of more certain times) Victoria & Abdul is nothing more than soul-soothing sap, a kind of comfy-slippers cinema that is the very definition of forgettable middle of the road, award-baiting, feel-good fare.
Victoria & Abdul
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon
Director: Stephen Frears
Running time: 111 minutes