Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams; directed by Stephen Frears; 112 minutes; PG-13 for strong language and mature thematic material. Grade: D+
"Victoria and Abdul" begins with a disclaimer. The drama about Queen Victoria's friendship with one of her servants - an Indian clerk named Abdul Karim, whose close relationship with his boss scandalized the Victorian court - is "based on true events ... mostly," says an on-screen title.
But it's not clear which part of the story is loosey-goosey. Directed by Stephen Frears ("Florence Foster Jenkins") from a script adapted by Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot") from historian Shrabani Basu's nonfiction book, "Victoria and Abdul" isn't wildly improbable.
The queen has a habit of befriending her staff members, such as personal assistant John Brown, memorialized in the movie "Mrs. Brown." (As in that 1997 film, Judi Dench again plays Victoria.)
The on-screen warning may simply be a way to alert viewers that the story isn't told with a straight face. Frears and Hall create a circus out of the scandalized response of the aristocrats to Victoria's relationship with her Muslim manservant - chiefly embodied by Eddie Izzard in the role of Victoria's priggish son Bertie.
"Victoria and Abdul" might have aimed for poignancy, but it plays like clownish comedy, treating crusty British prejudice with all the subtlety of "The Benny Hill Show."
Dench delivers a wonderfully nuanced and complex performance as Victoria, even if the Bollywood star Ali Fazal, as Abdul, isn't quite her equal in acting. But the real disappointments are in the supporting cast. Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Higgins and Olivia Williams, as members of Victoria's aghast retinue, mug and gape in shameless caricatures of bigotry as Abdul and Victoria grow closer.
Frears and Lee lay it on thick, with one character shouting "This is bloody ridiculous!" When the prime minister (Michael Gambon) issues a threat, his words are followed by a thunderclap, like something out of "Young Frankenstein."
Abdul is the placid face of the film's kumbaya spirit. Harmony between the races, he suggests, brings "all the threads together and weave[s] something we can all stand on."
The tale of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, which was not known to the world until Basu's 2010 book, is good and true and worth telling. But the way that "Victoria and Abdul" slops it around is mostly hogwash.