Lording over the colonies is all bore and bother for the queen in Stephen Frears' sumptuous yet centerless Victoria & Abdul. The film dramatizes Queen Victoria's spirited friendship with Abdul Karim, a charming clerk from northern India who -- in this telling -- jolts the Empress of India from her dotage with a smooch to her tootsies. Frears stages this for sprightly comedy. Abdul (Ali Fazal) gets presented to her at one of the banquets she half-snores through; he drops to the floor and kisses her feet. Cue the outraged tutting of royalty, aristocrats and other snoots. But new alertness kindles in the eyes of the queen (Judi Dench): She's dazzled.
Soon he's won her heart with talk of mangoes, garam masala and his touchingly Gumpian conviction that life is like an Indian rug. The one time that the topic of empire grows heated between them, the queen shuts down the discussion with this declaration: "We are all prisoners, Mr. Karim."
Dench, of course, whets the line so that it cuts, so that -- even if you roll your eyes at the thought of the queen's misery being comparable to that of the colonized -- you probably will feel some for the world's most powerful woman, alone at the center of everything.
But the film exhibits too little interest in Abdul himself. Fazal plays him as an apparently guileless enthusiast, a gushing wise man who looks as if what matters most is friendship itself, not the life-changing patronage of the queen. Frears' film snickers at the royal retinue's disgust at a Muslim in the queen's chambers, but it makes no more sense of who he is than they did.