And so it comes full circle. In 1997, Judi Dench—to that point best known for her work on British stage and television, and for her first turn as Bond’s “M” in GoldenEye—vaulted into cinema royalty (so to speak) for her performance as Queen Victoria in the director John Madden’s Mrs. Brown. The film concerned the queen’s close relationship with a common-born Scotsman named John Brown, a relationship that was regarded with concern and envy by her court and family.
Twenty years and seven Oscar nominations later—her first was for Mrs. Brown, her sole win for Madden’s later Shakespeare in Love—Dench again plays Victoria (though somewhat older) in Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul. The film concerns the queen’s close relationship with a common-born Indian Muslim man named Abdul Karim, a relationship that was regarded with concern and envy by her court and family.
Plus ça change…
It is worth noting that, despite some liberties taken, both films are based on real-life events. Victoria, who lost her beloved husband, Prince Albert, 24 years into her 64-year reign, never remarried, and both Brown and, subsequently, Karim served as important servant-companions in her later years.
That is, however, more or less where the resemblances between the two films end. Despite strong performances by Dench and Billy Connolly (as Brown), Mrs. Brown was a slow and somewhat awkward period drama. Victoria & Abdul, by contrast, is an elegant yet sprightly romp—albeit one that has been justifiably criticized for historical revisionism regarding the relationship between Britain and the Raj, as well as for the relatively two-dimensional portrait of Karim.