VENICE, Italy — British director Stephen Frears, Dame Judi Dench, actor-comedian Eddie Izzard and Bollywood star Ali Fazal largely steered clear of playing up the present-day relevance of period piece “Victoria & Abdul” – which addresses the real-life friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian Muslim clerk – at the film’s Venice press conference Sunday.
Frears is being awarded the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award in Venice, where “Victoria & Abdul” premieres Sunday evening out of competition.
Asked about how he mined the story’s humor, Frears responded: “It was always meant to be funny. I thought to myself: What film would Donald Trump most like to see?” Frears paused, then said: “It’s quite irreverent, isn’t it? I hope it is!”
Frears, who was nearly monosyllabic throughout the press conference, was subsequently asked whether he intended the pic to say something about relations between Western society and the Muslim world. “Of course it’s relevant. That’s why I made the remark about Trump,” he replied.
“It’s identical to ‘My Beautiful Launderette,'” he added. “It’s about a Muslim boy, except that we no longer have Daniel Day Lewis. We have Judi Dench! So it’s lost its homosexual edge. I guess I’ve become more conventional.”
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Dench, who predictably puts in a tour-de-force performance, talked about taking on the role of Queen Victoria again 20 years after playing her in John Madden’s “Mrs Brown,” for which she earned her first Oscar nomination.
“I never expected to revisit this part, but I have a great affection for it,” she said. “I had no film career really to speak of before I played Mrs. Brown, [which was] thanks to Harvey Weinstein. This particular story of Queen Victoria…seemed to me to be a kind of continuance…and of course I’d done the homework.
“It’s very, very complicated how Queen Victoria gravitates towards Abdul,” Dench added. “It’s a feeling of delight at being able to be relaxed with somebody without anybody around…She’s just able to relax and talk to him and long for things.”
Fazal pointed out that the pic manages to “humanize even that period when there was protocol, there was racism…everything that we are experiencing even now.” But he did not venture any further on its potential political connotations.
And even the usually politically charged Izzard steered clear of the more timely aspect of “Victoria & Abdul,” pertaining to the West’s relations with Muslims: “It’s an edgy story in terms of what we did to the Indian nation back then….Now the people of India and the people around the world can watch this story and see what actually went on,” he said.