Driving Miss Dench

Ah, the days when cakes looked like hats, and hats looked edible.

Ah, the days when cakes looked like hats, and hats looked edible.

Rated 2.0

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, craggy male action-stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson found new life in a series of hyper-conservative revenge films. The antagonists were generally “hippies” and “punks” and “perverts,” avatars for an out-of-control younger generation desperately in need of a good whupping, one that could only be delivered by a marginalized but righteous older man.

For all their petticoat trappings, Judi Dench costume dramas resemble the classic 1970s exploitation-film model in one crucial way—the entire appeal is based on the octogenarian actress eviscerating every simpering middle-aged panderer and disrespectful dark-skinned person in her way. The only difference is that Dench does the eviscerating with her acid tongue and impatient glare instead of a pocket knife.

I tend to like indefensible 1970s revenge films, repulsive politics notwithstanding, while gauzy Judi Dench costume dramas are almost as unappealing to me as The Human Centipede franchise, so obviously these movies are simply not for me. In Stephen Frears’ mealy, creaky, cranky biopic Victoria & Abdul, Dench is as relentless as the clown from It with her barbs and burps and eye rolls, perpetually shocking a series of younger stuffed shirts.

Victoria and Abdul opens with a title card stating that it is “Based on a True Story … Mostly,” a sure sign that the film would be terrible. It stands as a sort of unofficial sequel to John Madden’s Mrs. Brown, a 1997 costume drama that also starred Dench as Queen Victoria, and that also concerned her close relationship with a devoted servant. Frears’ film takes place a few years after the events of Mrs. Brown, beginning in India in 1887, when the country was still ruled by the British Empire.

In India, a prison clerk named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) gets tasked with traveling to England and delivering a ceremonial coin to Victoria, mainly because of his ample height. Accompanied by a shorter and less enthralled companion named Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), Abdul is strictly instructed not to engage the ailing queen. But when Victoria takes a liking to the handsome and charming Abdul, his stay gets extended indefinitely, making mouths gape and monocles pop in horror all over the palace.

Dench keeps the toothless one-liners coming: When Karim complains about his scratchy Scottish garb, Victoria replies, “Everything in Scotland is scratchy.” Take that, wool! Unfortunately, Frears can’t figure out what to do with Abdul. He was apparently a pocket liner in real life, but the film chalks his dewy-eyed devotion up to a genuine and uncomplicated love of service. It’s sort of like Driving Miss Daisy, only way more racist.

Insanely, the film sympathizes with Queen Victoria as a wilting symbol of equanimity and cultural exchange, while vilifying her cooks and dressers as symbols of the morally bankrupt British Empire. It even suggests that the friendship between Victoria and Abdul got the ball rolling on the Indian independence finally achieved decades after their deaths. That’s a revenge fantasy even Judi Dench can’t sell.