Stephen Frears returns to royal territory with the debut of his new film, Victoria & Abdul, about an unusual relationship the queen had toward the end of her life.
The British director says it’s no accident that he made a historical film that seeks to dismantle Muslim stereotypes.
Judi Dench returns to form as Queen Victoria in the late 19th century. Bored of her royal duties, and increasingly depressed at the world around her, she meets Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome Indian clerk who is recruited to be a part of a Golden Jubilee ceremony. The queen sees in Abdul a joy in life, unlike the staff around her who constantly brings her bad news.
They grow closer and closer, and he begins to teach the monarch Urdu. The royal court is horrified that she has taken to a lowly Muslim servant, and they take action to sabotage their intimate friendship and send him back to India.
Alongside premiering his new film on the Lido, Frears is also being honored with the festival’s Jaegar Le Coultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award. “We want to give a particular support to those who change cinema,” said Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Nicolas Siriez of the honor.
On why he decided to make a historical comedy examining Britain’s relationship with the Muslim world, Frears joked, “I thought to myself: ‘What film would Donald Trump most like to see?’ It’s quite irreverent.” He pointed out that the fact that the current queen can’t speak Urdu is a sign that “things are getting worse.”
Leads Dench and Fazal were drawn to tell the story of such a complex relationship.
“It’s very complicated, not just a feeling of love but a feeling of the delight of being able to be relaxed with somebody without anybody around, without anyone giving her any ultimatum or standing on ceremony in any way,” Dench said of the role. “She was completely able to relax and talk to him and learn form him and be taught by him.”
Added Fazal: “There was a very spiritual aspect to this relationship which is what I loved about this story. It wasn’t about the two ends of the spectrum they came from or the people they were. She was the strongest person on the planet at that time, and yet there was something missing. And he saw through that.”
The film was shot on location in multiple royal residences and the clothing was historically accurate down to the thread.
“Wearing the clothes was pretty tricky. She was under 5 foot and 46 inches around the waist,” said Dench. “After Albert died she just could not stop eating.”
Dench said rather than hinder her performance, the elaborate layers of costumes were crucial to the final performance. “Once you’re in all that and over that corsets and over that the weight of the dress and everything,” she said, “you don’t have to think about how she walked or sat because you are conditioned by what you’re wearing.”
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