Stephen Frears' superficial historical drama "Victoria & Abdul" ends up being little more than a beautifully photographed, lopsided star vehicle for Judi Dench, whose fully realized regal character sucks up so much of the narrative air, space and time that there's nothing left for anyone else.
The movie reveals the story behind the platonic relationship between aging Queen Victoria (Dench) and a 24-year-old Indian prison clerk named Abdul (handsome Bollywood star Ali Fazal) whom she meets at an 1887 royal dinner.
"Victoria & Adbul"★ ★
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Adeel Akhtar
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Other: A Focus Features release. Rated PG-13 for language. 110 minutes
She seems close to death by boredom when she spots Abdul from across a crowded room.
He has been pressed to come to London as a representative for India. He is to present the queen with a symbolic mohur gold coin.
He catches the royal eye. He proves to be charming, easy-on-the-eyes and extremely attentive, so much that the queen keeps requesting his presence to hear about all things India, a sudden new obsession.
Soon, they are constant companions, much to the chagrin of the palace staff and all of her family members and political associates, most of whom take umbrage that the Queen would associate with a person they believe to be of inferior heritage.
Dench's tone-perfect performance shouldn't be a surprise given that the actress played the same character two decades ago in 1997's "Mrs. Brown," when her Victoria caused controversy by letting another outsider male into her inner circle.
Outside of Dench's Queen, "Victoria & Abdul" wrestles with confusing, single-note supporting characters (wait, is Olivia Williams a member of the family or staff?) with flatlined dramatic arcs.
Williams turns out to be the Baroness Churchill. Michael Gambon plays the fuddy-duddy-ish prime minister, and Eddie Izzard looks stern and constipated as the Prince of Wales.
Abdul himself never changes from the sincere, affectionate and servile person we first meet, leaving his angry Indian sidekick Mohammed (Adeel Ahktar) to register the only criticisms of the racist, imperialist Brits, and even then, they are couched as jokes.
("Barbarians!" Mohammed repeatedly shouts after witnessing the animal parts consumed by his hosts.)
The screenplay, from Lee Hall based on the book by Shrabani Basu, struggles to preserve Abdul's good guy status, even after he's been revealed as a liar, pretending to be an educated writer, not a prison clerk, to keep in the queen's good graces.
Victoria's response -- rationalizing that Abdul's deceits and non-disclosures were done to protect her -- rings false here, even if it were to be historically accurate.
"Victoria & Abdul" feels like "Downton Abbey Lite," a chamber drama of manners, minus the raw conflict necessary to elevate this material to any level of memorable.