Stephen Frears dwells on Queen Victoria's convention-defying friendship in new film

Director Stephen Frears attends the premiere of the movie Victoria and Abdul at the 74th Venice Film Festival on Sept 3, 2017 at Venice Lido.
Director Stephen Frears attends the premiere of the movie Victoria and Abdul at the 74th Venice Film Festival on Sept 3, 2017 at Venice Lido. PHOTO: AFP

VENICE (AFP) - Grouchy, greedy and constipated: Nobody could accuse Stephen Frears of kowtowing with his portrayal of Queen Victoria in his new film Victoria & Abdul which premiered in Venice on Sunday.

The director, who won a string of awards for The Queen, his 2006 depiction of Queen Elizabeth II in turmoil at the time of Princess Diana's death, returns to royal questions in a tale of the current British monarch's great, great grandmother's friendship with a young Indian Muslim, Abdul Karim, in the final years of her long reign.

Set at a time when the British Empire was at its peak and India was its "Jewel in the Crown", Frears' script lampoons the pomposity, arrogance and ignorance of the Imperial age.

But, he said, the convention-defying, cross-cultural relationship at its heart has resonance today, when Britain and India's relationship has been transformed but racism and Islamophobia linger.

Abdul, played by Ali Fazal, is a clerk sent to London in 1887 to present the queen with a gold Mughal coin as part of celebrations to mark her golden jubilee.

It is supposed to be a fleeting visit on which, he is repeatedly told, he must above all avoid looking directly at his Empress, played by Judi Dench.

It is an instruction he flouts and, having caught her eye, is soon ensconced in the royal household.

Fazal delved into history books to get a grasp of Abdul's unique experience.

"The important thing was that we more or less humanised that era where there was protocol, there was racism and everything that we are still dealing with now."

Dench said: "It is very, very complex her attitude to Abdul: not just a feeling of love, but the delight of being relaxed with someone without anyone around or any standing on ceremony."