Judi Dench has played so many queens that she should be honorary British royalty. In Victoria & Abdul, the time period is 1887 and Queen Victoria (Dench) is floundering. The most powerful woman in the world, she languishes from personal loss, sleeps through her own banquets and suffers the indignity of reporting her bowel movements.
Enter Abdul (Ali Fazal)–literally. He’s honored with the job of presenting a ceremonial Indian coin to Queen Victoria alongside Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), a last-minute fill in who wants nothing to do with the task. Following an arduous journey from India, the pair receive strict instructions about protocol. They are props just as much as the coin.
After giving Queen Victoria the coin and backing away as etiquette dictates, Abdul breaks convention and locks eyes with the monarch. A tense moment ensues: how will she react? Declaring him handsome, the queen decides both men should stay and thus marks the beginning of their relationship over the final 15 years of the queen’s life.
The chemistry between Dench and Fazal is integral to the course of the film and the pair’s on-screen ambiguous relationship. Why exactly is Queen Victoria so taken with Abdul, whom she elevates from servant to teacher/advisor over the course of their years together? Is it a matter of physical attraction or something more?
There’s a beautiful moment in the film when the queen and Abdul dance together on the verandah. An interview with Fazal reveals the words were scripted, but the action was not. He says director Stephen Frears asked them to dance while saying their lines, a move that results in Fazal beginning by reaching out rather gracelessly–an entirely real moment that appears in the final cut of the film.
What didn’t make it into the film? Dench and Fazal slapping their faces as a multitude of mosquitoes swarm them in a boat. Fazal says even coming from a country like India where the pests are everywhere, these were intolerable. The scene with the boat remains in the film, though Fazal can’t help but laugh in memory at the outtakes.
For more about Victoria & Abdul directly from Ali Fazal, along with a discussion about themes and symbolism in the film, take a look below:
All film photos are courtesy of Focus Features.