Director Stephen Frears on Directing Dame Judi Dench in Victoria & Abdul

Stephen Frears steered Helen Mirren to an Oscar as The Queen and landed Meryl Streep in the Best Actress circle last year for Florence Foster Jenkins. But when it comes to Judi Dench, who stars in his latest film Victoria & Abdul (opening Friday //Sept. 22// in New York and L.A.) the veteran British filmmaker brushes aside any suggestion that he contributed in any significant way to her bravura performance as England’s 81-year-old Queen Victoria.

Judi Dench star as Queen Victoria in director Stephen Frears’ VICTORIA AND ABDUL, a Focus Features release. Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features

Asked if Dench shows up on set with her character already clearly defined, Frears replies. “Entirely.” So what does that leave for him to do? “Very little,” Frears half-jokes, speaking from a Beverly Hills hotel during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “That’s what I like about it. If a story is working and going in the right direction and things are being done with the right elements of wit and elegance, then there’s very little left for me to say.”

Victoria & Abdul marks Frears’ fifth collaboration with the formidable Dame Dench, including their 2013 Oscar-nominated Philomena. Explaining the basis of their bond, Frears says “Judi’s getting on and I imagine she wants to have people around her who can make her feel comfortable and secure, people she can trust. And she chooses to trust me.”

Based on a true story, Victoria & Abdul follows the fireworks in 1887 when a 24-year old Muslim named Abdul (Ali  Fazal) is plucked from anonymity in India and summoned to London so he can present the queen with a ceremonial coin. Elegant, tall and handsome, Abdul rouses the grouchy Queen from an extended state of lethargy. “I suppose the pomp of the court is very de-humanizing so at the beginning of our story, the Queen’s bored and depressed,” Frears says. “But she turns out to be a woman who has feelings, like anybody else. The tension of this film lies in the split between her public life as a queen, and her private life as a human being. It’s really about watching somebody wake up.”

Dench dramatizes a remarkable transformation as Victoria warms up to Abdul, even breaking into song at one point to croon the Gilbert and Sullivan ditty “I’m Called Little Buttercup.” Frears says, “When Abdul’s around, Victoria’s like a teenager sometimes. Judi doesn’t need me to tell her how to do that.”

Frears and his design team frame Dench’s performance within a world of plush royal style. Costume designer Consolata Boyle (The Queen, Florence Foster Jenkins) swaddles Dench in intricately detailed black gowns. Sumptuous locations include the idyllic highlands of Scotland and “Osborne House,” Queen Victoria’s favorite residence, never before seen on film. “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” says Frears. “You go to beautiful places to do beautiful photography. You can’t go anywhere else.”

Judi Dench (left) stars as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal (right) stars as Abdul Karim in director Stephen Frears’ VICTORIA AND ABDUL, a Focus Features release. Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features

But Frears’ secret weapon throughout Victoria & Abdul is Judi Dench’s face, captured in sometimes in tremulous close-ups, other times as distant scowls. Frears says, “Judi Dench’s face is incredibly expressive. There’s an enormous amount going on behind her eyes and Judi’s learned how to use that power because she’s such a fantastic actress. However you decide to shoot her, you know it’s going to be powerful. You just want to keep out of the way, really.”

Victoria & Abdul co-stars Bollywood actor Ali Fazal. “I decided the character of Abdul should be played by an actor from India,” Frears says. “I didn’t think an actor who’d grown up in Britain would have the sense of wonder that Abdul has when he’s staring at this new country, not knowing what royalty was like, and being amazed by it all. Ali’s good looking and actually a sweet boy. And he got on very well with Judi.”

As played by Fazal, Abdul’s charms drive the movie’s comedic first act, but the story darkens when his Islamic wife and mother-in-law arrive in England shrouded in burkas. Defying her Islamophobic entourage, the Queen champions Abdul to the bittersweet death-bed end. The film’s Muslim-as-Outsider theme resonated for Frears from the moment he read the script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot). “I liked the politics of this story,” he  says. “I found it to be very provocative. In fact, we should show the film to President Trump. And there’s quite a lot of intolerance in England as well, I’m ashamed to say.” Frears pauses. “You’d have thought by now we’d have worked these things out, but we haven’t.”

Featured image: Ali Fazal (left) stars as Abdul Karim and Judi Dench (right) stars as Queen Victoria in director Stephen Frears’ VICTORIA AND ABDUL, a Focus Features release.  Credit: Peter Mountain / Focus Features


Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.