Judi Dench on returning to a favorite role for 'Victoria and Abdul' (plus, exclusive featurette)

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

In Victoria and Abdul, Judi Dench revisits the role of Queen Victoria, which she first played 20 years ago in Mrs. Brown. Did she rewatch her Oscar-nominated performance in that 1997 drama, about Victoria’s friendship with a Scottish servant, to get back into character as the queen? “No, no, no, I didn’t,” Dench emphatically told Yahoo Entertainment, adding mischievously, “I hope it’s the same person!”

Dame Judi needn’t worry. Not only is her Queen Victoria clearly the same royal personage (albeit two decades older), but her performance in Victoria and Abdul is receiving the same kind of accolades that led to that first Oscar nomination. Dench subsequently won an Academy Award for her performance as a different queen, Elizabeth I, in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, and has gone on to receive five more nominations. But no, she hasn’t watched a single one of those films since they premiered. “I am very, very self-critical, and I don’t watch them with any ease,” she explained. “It’s not like the theater where you could get it better the next night, you know. You’ve got to settle with what’s there.”

The only one she’d even consider watching? “I’ve never seen A Room With a View,” Dench said of the beloved 1985 Merchant-Ivory drama, for which she won a BAFTA Award. “I think I could watch it now because I’ve forgotten about it. So that’s good.”

For the time being, Dench’s attention is fixed on Victoria and Abdul, director Stephen Frears’s dramatization of the friendship between the octogenarian monarch and her Indian attendant Abdul Karim, played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal. That little-known relationship was brought to light in the 2010 biography by Shrabani Basu, on which the film is based. Dench thought it a “wonderful continuance” of the story that director John Madden told in Mrs. Brown, which convinced her to return to a role she “never expected” to play again. Thanks to all the research she’d previously done on Victoria, Dench understood how the queen’s grief over losing her husband, Prince Albert, continued into her later years, and how much it meant for her to meet Abdul, “this young man who she found she could talk to easily, and learn from, and laugh with, and relax with, and do without the rest of the court.”

The onscreen bond between Victoria and Abdul was reflected in the real relationship between Dench and Fazal (whose only previous Hollywood credit was a minor role in Furious 7). Just as the real-life Indian servant tutored the queen in Urdu, Fazal patiently taught Dench to read and pronounce Urdu words between takes. “We would go off and we’d practice until it came to the scene, where we hoped we got it all,” said Dench. “We did a little bit of writing it and everything. Fascinating to learn, just fascinating. Oh, it was just delightful to do it.” (Watch an exclusive featurette from Victoria and Abdul above.)

Less delightful, says Dench, was the process of filming one of Victoria and Abdul’s most idyllic scenes, in which she and Fazal take a rowboat to Queen Victoria’s lochside retreat in the Scottish highlands. Because the cast and crew were shooting on location in September, they were at the mercy of Scotland’s midges, gnatlike insects with a taste for blood. “When we were out in the boat, we were severely bitten, I’m afraid,” said Dench, adding with a laugh, “It looked very romantic, didn’t it?”

Victoria and Abdul is now playing in select theaters.

Watch the trailer:

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