With Victoria And Abdul, Stephen Frears and Dame Judi Dench are returning to Venice for the first time together since 2013’s triumphant Philomena. This is also a reunion of another sort for Dench who is sporting Queen Victoria’s crown for the first time since her Oscar-nominated turn in Mrs Brown 20 years ago.
Victoria And Abdul is the story of the regent as she nears the end of her life, and the Indian clerk (Ali Fazal) who became her trusted confidante and had a profound effect on those later years. The out-of-competition official selection debuted to positive notices today and awards chatter for its lead.
Dench said today that she never expected to revisit the role of Queen Victoria, but that she has “a great affection for the part because I had no film career to speak of before I played Mrs Brown — thanks to Harvey Weinstein because that was made for television and after became a film.”
But this particular story, which had been buried until 2010 according to the movie’s coda, “seemed to be a kind of continuance… It was an irresistible proposition. She was a remarkable person.”
The queen’s relationship with Abdul scandalized the royal household: He was a lower class Muslim who schooled Victoria in Urdu and the Koran. Asked about those issues and how they resonate today, Frears said, “I thought to myself: ‘What film would Donald Trump most like to see?’”
It was pointed out by Eddie Izzard, who plays the son who would become King Edward VII, that Victoria And Abdul has something in common with Frears’ 1985 Oscar-nominee My Beautiful Laundrette. The director thought about it for a while and agreed, “It’s identical,” then he deadpanned, “Judi and Daniel Day-Lewis is not much of a muchness, so it’s lost it’s homosexual edge and become rather more conventional.”
Then again, this is not a story of romantic love. The emotion between Victoria and Abdul is “why the story is so utterly intriguing,” said Dench. “It’s not just a feeling of love, but of the delight of being able to be relaxed with somebody without anybody around.”
Fazal called theirs a “fantastical world created in the middle of this massive British Empire. I think they had a spiritual relationship. She was the strongest woman in the world and yet there was something missing. They intellectually stimulated each other. It was poetic love, friendship love, mother and son love.”
The Focus Features title next heads to Toronto, then starts international rollout on September 14 and releases domestically on September 22.