The Clerk and the Queen: Stephen Frears' 'Victoria & Abdul' charts the surprising bond between a monarch and an Indian civil servant

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If there is any uncharted territory in the cinema’s depiction of women, Stephen Frears may have hit upon it in Victoria & Abdul. The film, which opens on Sept. 22 from Focus Features, begins in 1887, when Queen Victoria was 68 years old and celebrating her Golden Jubilee. A tall, dark, handsome stranger catches her eye. He is over 40 years her junior, yet at first glance Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) appears as entranced with her as she is with him. Afterward, when Victoria (Judi Dench) asks her secretary to delay Abdul’s return to India, the twinkle in her eye is unmistakable. It appears doubtful that the Queen had an intimate relationship with Abdul, but neither does Victoria & Abdul suggest that the young man stirred Victoria’s maternal instincts.

Unable to recall another narrative film that centers on such a delicately balanced relationship between a man and a woman, a friendship but also an unconsummated love affair, Frears says: “It never crossed my mind, but you’re actually right—and it’s shocking, quite shocking!” Mimicking the reaction of Victoria’s court after it became clear that Abdul was more than a trusted servant, Frears also illustrates the sly humor that characterizes his film. Victoria & Abdul is about a relationship that lasted until the day Victoria died in 1901, at Osborne House, her favorite home. Abdul was at her side, although the loyal Indian Muslim subject, and the scandalous affiliation he and Victoria shared, were wiped from the historical record by Edward VII, Victoria’s son and heir. Fortunately, the story resurfaced about 50 years later.

The veteran British director, who spoke with FJI from London, received the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award for lifetime achievement at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Frears’ most recent film, Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), starred Meryl Streep as the eponymous New York socialite. Streep garnered her 20th Oscar nomination for that role. The director’s breakout film was My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), a delightful story about a mixed-race love affair. The Grifters (1990), which follows a trio of West Coast con artists, garnered four Oscar nominations, including best actress for Anjelica Houston. One of Frears’ best-known films is The Queen (2006), a fictional account of Queen Elizabeth II and her family in the days following Princess Diana’s death, for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar. Victoria & Abdul reunites Frears with Judi Dench, his star in Philomena (2013).

Frears is consistently attracted to character-driven stories, many of them about women. While he has a reputation for being exacting on-set, he is known as an actor’s director. He is unusual in the sense that his cinematic style is both sublime and understated. “That just means that I love the films of classic Hollywood,” Frears says. Asked about the nature of his career-long collaboration with costume designer and two-time Oscar nominee Consolata Boyle, he replies: “She shows me something and I say ‘Yes.’” Boyle’s work on Victoria & Abdul provides clever clues to Victoria’s state of mind, from whose point of view the film unfolds; it also charts Abdul’s climb up the ranks of her court. “That’s real imagination, talent and craft,” Frears observes.

Victoria & Abdul marks the director’s third film with Academy Award-winning director of photography Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, 2010). “We work out the camera movement the whole time we are filming,” Frears says, when asked about their way of work. “It’s coming from the screenplay, so it’s always there. That’s the pleasure of it, really.” Oscar-winning screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, 2000) adapted the movie’s screenplay from Indian writer Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria and Abdul: the True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. Shrabani, who works as a journalist in Britain, was researching a book on curry when she discovered that the turmeric-laced stew was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite dishes.

Curiosity piqued, Shrabani visited Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, now a museum and the site of an on-location shoot in Victoria & Abdul. She spotted two paintings of an Indian man, and learned they were commissioned portraits of Abdul. That led Basu back to her homeland, and to Abdul’s family, who had preserved his diary. Written in Urdu, it chronicled his 14 years with his beloved Victoria. In the film, and in real life, Abdul was elevated to the position of “Munshi” or teacher; he instructed the queen in the Urdu language and in the Koran. A brief conversation about Victoria’s appreciation of chutney in Victoria & Abdul hints at another of the Munshi’s roles, which was to cook curries for Victoria.

Having directed his second movie about Britain’s great queens, one may wonder if Frears is a monarchist. “We’re all sycophantic and sentimental about the monarchy,” he responds, “but Elizabeth and Victoria are institutions.” As for his star, Judi Dench, she portrayed a younger Victoria in John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997), which chronicled the queen’s love affair with a former bodyguard, as well as Elizabeth I in Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998). Dench is the recipient of several royal orders; one granted her the title of “Dame.” “There is no point in being a Republican in Britain,” Frears says, referring to the anti-monarchists. “There’s a limit to defeat.”

Frears claims not to have directed Dench’s performance in Victoria & Abdul. “I didn’t tell her anything,” he says. “She knows far more about Victoria and these characters than I do. She’s just brilliant.” Casting for Abdul was difficult, the director admits. “I should be ashamed of myself, but when I first read the script, I thought the character was like Chauncey Gardiner,” he says. Chauncey is a sheltered, acquiescent gardener, portrayed by Peter Sellers in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). “Abdul doesn’t interrogate,” he observes, “nor does he question why everyone is bowing and scraping before the Queen, and not being discontented.”

Frears points out that Sellers twice played an Indian, in the comedies The Millionairess (1960) and The Party (1968). “I thought it would be very foolish to cast a non-Indian actor, so I didn’t do it.” Instead, Frears went to Bombay. “The role needed an actor of such skill and such sophistication,” he says, “but then when I found Ali, I felt lucky. He’s so attractive and so innocent, so sweet.” And, Frears added, he knew Dench would like him. She did, and the two have a wonderful onscreen chemistry.

Americans will be surprised at this Queen Victoria, apparently free of all the formalities of the era named for her. In the film and in real life, Victoria accused her court and her son (played by Eddie Izzard) of racism when they tried to expel Abdul from England. Frears admits that he fails to understand why the family kept the relationship a secret. “I hope American audiences will be as bewitched by the story as we were,” he says. As for Victoria’s seeming lack of maternal instincts toward Bertie, the director thinks that perhaps he “was jealous of someone having the affection that she didn’t give him.” Upon assuming the throne after Victoria’s death, Bertie expelled Abdul and his family from England, and burned whatever papers he found—but the Queen, who was also Empress of India, had already given her Munshi land and a pension.