Dame Judi Dench was in Manhattan last week to promote her new film, “Victoria and Abdul.” This is the fifth movie she and director Stephen Frears have made together. Their last collaboration, “Philomena” in 2013, earned Dench her seventh Oscar nomination.
Dench played Queen Victoria before, in John Madden’s “Mrs. Brown,” for which she also received an Oscar nomination. Both films are about the queen’s relationship with a servant. In the 1997 movie, her adoring servant John Brown (Billy Connolly) brings her back to public life after she goes into a deep depression following her husband’s death.
Based on the book “Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant” by Shrabani Basul, the screenplay by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) focuses on the story of Victoria’s relationship with the Muslim servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). He was sent all the way from India to present her with a commemorative coin to celebrate her Golden Jubilee year. The handsome young man caught her eye — and kissed her feet — and finally won her affection. Victoria soon appointed him her clerk and Indian language teacher, for which she gave him the title of the “Munshi.”
The film focuses on the havoc her friendship with Abdul Karim caused. There is endless intrigue in the court and resentment towards Karim. Abdul endured racism. The royal court refused to obey her wishes that they respect him. Then there is her embarrassment of a son, Bertie (an unrecognizable Eddie Izzard), who mistreats Abdul because he is jealous of the attention his mother lavishes on him which she never gave him; Bertie is also eager to finally inherit the crown from the longest sitting monarch.
Meanwhile Queen Victoria is dying of boredom and literally eating herself to death. Abdul brings some zest back into her life.
At a SAG screening, Dame Judi explained the relationship between the Queen and Abdul.
“This is a friendship between a woman in her early 80’s and a young man in his 30’s. A woman who’s had a very passionate relationship with her husband, and also a very passionate relationship with John Brown. And then he dies. That passion doesn’t go away. That’s a burning force, it’s like the core of a person. If you have that in you then I don’t think it ever really goes away,” she said. She’s lonely and miserable, her loved ones dead, but “day after day after day, you know, she’s fulfilling all her duties. Then suddenly she meets this young man, who she finds she can talk to and learn from and laugh with and relax, who will teach me a few things. I mean what could be more understandable than that?”
After five films, she and director Stephen Frears have a shorthand she said. “He directs by stealth.”
As an example, Ali Fazal described the first scene where Victoria and Abdul first came into contact, during the banquet when he presented her with the coin. “There were 200 people in that whole place, and we looked to Stephen, Judi and I, and said, ‘Stephen how’s that to you?’ And he walks up and he says, ‘Judi, just act better.’”
The food scenes in the film are among the most amusing but presented a challenge to Dench, who explained, “There is a scene where I’m having a boiled egg on a tray. Afterwards I was asked, ‘Would you like to know how many boiled eggs you’ve eaten?’ He said, ‘11.”
As for whether she felt pressure playing Victoria for the second time, she said, “I don’t know about pressure. I just thought the script was a continuance of what we had discovered in ‘Mrs. Brown’ and none of us had read about it. I never expected to revisit the part again and play the part again, but it seemed to me that this story was very worth hearing about.”
An audience member at the SAG screening began her question by noting, “It’s a known fact you are a national treasure in the UK (Dench made a grimace – she does not like being called that), and that being said have you been up to any mischief lately?”
Replied Dench with a straight face, “Absolutely none. I’m mischief free. But I have last week learned to rap.”
Dame Judi explained — with cheers from the audience — that she received rapping lesson from UK grime artist Lethal Bizzle.
Here’s a link to a clip of Dame Judi learning to rap:
“Victoria and Abdul” features Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith and Olivia Williams. The film opens Friday, September 22.
Ali Fazal, Dame Judi and Eddie Izzard at Bar Milano