Toward the end of her life, Queen Victoria — the Empress of India, despite never having set foot in that country — took an interest in, and eventually befriended, a young Indian clerk sent to attend her golden jubilee. Her Majesty (played here with magnificent, exhausted humanity by Judi Dench) even granted him the title of Munshi (“teacher”) and had him accompany her while traveling — extraordinary! What to make of such a remarkable bit of history? Alas, for director Stephen Frears, the answer is “not much” (though what is there is certainly splendid to look upon). There are smatterings of politics — the Munshi’s fellow Indian gets in regular, mordant digs at the Empire — and of healthy cultural curiosity. And he does ease the Queen’s sunset sorrow. But most of the actual drama is taken up with the petty jealousy, ingrained racism, and impotent scheming of the Queen’s household, so much so that the Munshi — the person, as opposed to the simply hated Other — fades from view for large swaths of the picture. The result is that we neither understand his deep devotion to his Empress, nor see the man behind the smile. (2017) — Matthew Lickona
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