A decade after his success with “The Queen,” twice Oscar-nominated Stephen Frears returns to royal territory with “Victoria & Abdul.”
Opening Friday, the movie focuses not on Queen Elizabeth II, but on Queen Victoria, who reigned until her death in 1901.
“Once, I found the whole thing rather uninteresting, Victoria and England. I now think she must have been an extraordinary woman,” says Frears in a recent phone conversation.
Based on real events that were successfully covered up for a century, the movie depicts Victoria’s unusual friendship with Abdul (Ali Fazal), an emissary from India.
“It seems to have woken her up. She’s half-dead when the film starts,” says Frears, describing their relationship. “It was about affection, friendship, trust. She’d write letters saying ‘hold me tight.’ Anything to get away from the boringness of her life.”
Judi Dench plays Victoria, as close to perfect as casting can get. She previously played the part in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), and she and Frears have worked together many times, most recently in “Philomena.”
Frears says he admires her because of her mischievousness and her sexiness.
When looking for her Abdul, the director went straight to India.
“I didn’t want to cast an English Indian, who was brought up in England. Someone from England couldn’t have that sense of wonder and curiosity,” he says.
Meanwhile, the great English actor and comedian Eddie Izzard appears — and is nearly unrecognizable — as Victoria’s son Bertie, who harbors nothing but hatred and jealousy for Abdul.
Though Bertie could have been a villainous character, Izzard realized that he’s more of a child, in a childish relationship with his mother.
“It was more like brother and sister than mother and son,” he says, also speaking by phone. “’You’ve got the ball! Can I play with the ball? No you can’t!’”
As for performing with Dench, Izzard calls her a pro who is in touch with her inner teenage girl. “The great thing about Judi is that she seems more like Queen Victoria than Queen Victoria does!”
Though skilled at directing, Frears considers himself a writer’s director, attracting often the most talented scribes in the business. “Victoria and Abdul” is no exception, coming from playwright and screenwriter Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”).
Why do writers trust him? “I’m told it’s because I’m brave and irreverent,” says Frears. “I put their irreverence into the film.”
IF YOU GO
Victoria & Abdul
Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon
Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Stephen Frears
Running time 1 hour, 52 minutes