Judi Dench rules the Venice waves in 'Victoria & Abdul'
Posted September 3
VENICE, Italy — It was a day of queens at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday — a real British monarch on the screen and two queens of acting, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, on the red carpet.
Dench plays long-reigning Queen Victoria in Stephen Frears' "Victoria & Abdul," which charts the relationship between the monarch and Abdul Karim, an Indian man who became her servant and teacher.
Ahead of the film's gala premiere, Dench said she owes her movie career to Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901.
The 82-year-old actress told reporters "I had no film career really to speak of" before playing the monarch in the 1997 drama "Mrs. Brown," which gained Dench the first of her seven Academy Awards nominations.
She said revisiting the role and working again with Frears — who directed her to an Oscar nomination in "Philomena" — was "an irresistible proposition."
If Dench needs any advice on playing royalty, she could turn to Helen Mirren, in Venice Sunday with Paolo Virzi's road-trip movie "The Leisure Seeker." Mirren has played Britain's current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in movie "The Queen" and play "The Audience."
"It's good to be queen," Mirren said at a news conference for her film. "You always get very nice costumes when you're the queen, and you usually get quite a lot of lines. Or if you don't get a lot of lines you have very few lines but everybody looks at you."
Dench's two films about Victoria both center on close relationships the widowed monarch struck with men who were her servants.
In "Mrs. Brown" it was Scottish outdoorsman John Brown; in "Victoria & Abdul" it's Karim (played by Indian actor Ali Fazal), a young man brought to Britain to present the monarch with a gift for her Golden Jubilee in 1887.
The film depicts the queen's growing fascination with India, then part of the vast British empire. Victoria filled one of her homes with Indian artworks and under Karim's tutelage even learned Urdu.
The film — based largely on real events — depicts a royal court and British government horrified at the monarch's growing relationship with an Indian Muslim.
It's a story that feels strongly relevant to modern times, despite its 19th-century setting.
Frears joked that he asked himself before making it: "What film would Donald Trump most like to see?"
Eddie Izzard, who plays Victoria's eldest son, the future King Edward VII, said "Victoria & Abdul" is "an edgy story because of what we did to the Indian nation back then," when Britain was India's colonial master.
"This story has been suppressed for 100 years, so it's good to get it out," Izzard said.
The film marks a return to royal subject matter for Frears, who had one of his biggest successes in 2006 with "The Queen."
Frears also has a gritty side to his repertoire, exemplified by films like "My Beautiful Laundrette," ''The Grifters" and "Dirty Pretty Things."
Izzard said the new film had more in common than might first appear with "My Beautiful Laundrette," the story of a relationship between a Pakistani-British man and a white former skinhead in Thatcher-era London. It's a landmark of 80s British cinema, and gave Daniel Day-Lewis one of his first big screen roles.
Izzard said the new movie "is essentially 'My Beautiful Laundrette' done with kings and queens."
Added Frears: "Except that we no longer have Daniel Day-Lewis — we have Judi Dench."
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