Judi Dench has played so many queens that she should be made honorary British royalty. In “Victoria & Abdul” the year is 1887 and Queen Victoria (Dench) is floundering. The most powerful woman in the world, she languishes from personal loss, sleeps through her own banquets and suffers the indignity of reporting her bowel movements.

Enter Abdul (Ali Fazal) – literally. He’s honored with the job of presenting a ceremonial Indian coin to Queen Victoria alongside Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), a last-minute fill-in who wants nothing to do with the task. Following an arduous journey from India, the pair receives strict instructions about protocol. They are props just as much as the coin.

After handing Queen Victoria the gift and backing away as etiquette dictates, Abdul breaks convention and locks eyes with the monarch. A tense moment ensues: how will she react? Declaring him handsome, the queen decides both men should stay, thus marking the beginning of their relationship over the final 15 years of the queen’s life.

The chemistry between Dench and Fazal is integral to the course of the film and the pair’s ambiguous on-screen relationship. Why, exactly, is Queen Victoria so taken with Abdul, whom she elevates from servant to teacher to adviser over the course of their years together? Is it a matter of physical attraction or something more?

“Victoria & Abdul” makes a case for the similarities between the pair. The first shot of Abdul is a solitary one; he completes his morning prayers alone on an Indian rooftop with a bustling city laid out below. Following the ritual, Abdul must jump into the fray. It becomes clear that he may be among the people, but is not of them.

The queen, too, leads a life of isolation. Though she’s surrounded by a large and efficient staff, she’s like a rag doll under everyone else’s control. Starting from the moment she gets up in the morning, her body hangs limply as she’s manipulated and dressed by others. The queen’s lack of power within her own life is emphasized by director Stephen Frears as he chooses not to reveal her face until several scenes have passed. It’s as though the queen herself so unimportant that there’s no need to bother with it.

As the relationship between the pair strengthens, there’s a beautiful moment when the queen and Abdul dance together on a verandah. An interview with Fazal reveals the words were scripted, but the action was not. He says Frears asked them to dance while saying their lines, a move that resulted in Fazal beginning by reaching out rather gracelessly — an entirely real moment that appears in the final cut of the film.

What didn’t make it? Dench and Fazal slapping their faces as a multitude of mosquitoes swarmed them in a boat. Fazal says even coming from India where the pests are everywhere, these were intolerable. The scene with the boat remains in the film, though Fazal can’t help but laugh in memory at the outtakes.

The off-screen relationship between Dench and Fazal was equally as warm. He describes their first meeting as akin to an Indian arranged marriage. It took place at a picturesque restaurant, and though he had a self-described fan boy moment, he says Dench gave him the “warmest hug and it just became so easy after that.”

“Victoria & Abdul” is easy, too, in the way that a well-constructed film should be. It’s a combination of Oscar-worthy acting, crisp writing, beautiful cinematography and gorgeous costume designs, all areas that could conceivably garner Oscar recognition.

The mosquito outtakes may have been good for a few chuckles, but the ultimate film is far superior.

Grade: A

 

Capsule Reviews

AMERICAN MADE

Stars: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Doug Liman

Rating: R

This exciting and funny action comedy is also the bizarre true-life tale of Barry Seal, an airline pilot who found himself recruited to make illegal flights in the 1980s by both the CIA and the Medellin drug cartel. The complications and conflicts that Barry finds himself in are unpredictable from start to finish, and Cruise is a joy to watch in his most human role in 15 years.

Grade: A

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell

Length: 121 minutes

Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Rating: PG13

Recounting the 1972 showdown between female tennis champ Billie Jean King and former male champ Bobby Riggs designed to show that men were superior athletes, this rousing and funny true story also has a lot of emotional heft as it depicts King internal conflicts regarding her sexual orientation. The movie has great performances and a terrific score, while the directors keep the balls in the air for a game-set-match winner. Grade: A

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

Stars: Taran Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Channing Tatum

Length: 141 minutes

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Rating: R

This sequel to the 2015 surprise hit spy comedy “Kingsman: The Secret Service” tries to follow the idea that “bigger is better” but comes up somewhat short. Big names like Moore and Tatum are added to the cast but do almost nothing, and there’s a long middle stretch without any action, but the parts that work are great enough to make this worth the watch for action comedy fans.

Grade: B

BRAD’S STATUS

Stars: Ben Stiller, Jenna Fischer, Jermaine Clement

Length: 101 minutes

Directed by:  Mike White

Rating: R

This character-driven indie dramedy largely consists of the interior monologues of Stiller as a man in the throes of an extremely annoying midlife crisis while taking his son on a college scouting tour that includes his own alma mater. Stiller shows surprising depth but the movie will make you want to slap Brad out of his funk.

Grade: D

IT

Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Leberher, Finn Wolfhard

Length: 135 minutes

Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Rating: R

Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel finally hits the big screen in the first of a planned two-part adaptation, mixing plenty of inventive scares with an affecting and funny group of 13-year-old outsiders in 1980s small-town Maine who have to team up to battle a demonic clown that’s killing children. Muschietti avoids exploiting the gruesome moments, making this a fun ride as much as it is a scarefest.

Grade: A