During the recent 74th Venice Film Festival, Stephen Frears received the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award, which celebrates a filmmaker for making an original contribution in contemporary cinema.
He was in Venice to premiere the latest contribution, Victoria and Abdul. As any film buff or filmmaker knows, today’s films are informed by cinema’s past, so when we start by asking him about the stand-out scene in the film, which happens early in proceedings and is set at a dinner table, Frears proudly acknowledges that he stole that from Josef Von Sternberg’s 1934 classic, The Scarlett Empress.
There is no doubt that savvy filmmakers of the future will be referencing Frears’ work, especially when you consider that he has been behind such classics such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and Philomena. There are some misses strewn through his nearly 50-year prolific career behind the camera, but Victoria and Abdul doesn’t look like it’ll be one of them.
Unveiled in Venice last week, going onto Toronto this week, and releasing around the world at the same time, the drama chronicles the true story of a friendship between Queen Victoria and a clerk from India who participates in the Queen’s golden jubilee in 1837.
When we catch up with Stephen Frears in Venice, he immediately admits that, had Judi Dench knocked back the part of Queen Victoria, he would not have made the movie. “I didn’t tell her that, but I wouldn’t have made it. Well how else could I have made it? You take one look at Judi… I don’t get marks for creativity, I couldn’t imagine who else could have played it.”
It’s this pragmatic attitude that allows the filmmaker to represent such eclectic characters on the screen, even those that he may not sympathise with personally. “I’m a republican, so I would put them up against a wall and shoot them,” he says of the Royal Family. “I’d get rid of them, I think it’s all ridiculous. The queen happens to behave rather well throughout her life, apart from the time we made a film about it [The Queen], but she somehow got away with it.”
Interestingly, in looking for locations to shoot the film, the first option was knocked back due to the film’s subject matter. “We were turned down by Arundel Castle,” admits Frears. “It’s quite dull actually, but if you want to shoot Gothic architecture, you have Windsor Castle, Arundel Castle and Beaver Castle, but Arundel Castle wouldn’t let us in. The Duke [Edward William Fitzalan-Howard], on hearing that the film was about Muslims, said no. He didn’t want to upset the Royal Family. They are thick as thieves these people. We went to Beaver Castle, which is further away from London so it cost us more money, which was a drag.”
Accordingly, Victoria and Abdul touches on racism, albeit in a humorous way. “I like the jokes about racism because it’s all there all the time,” says Frears. “I’ve done all this stuff before. And a Muslim writer is one of my best friends [Hanif Kureishi, who wrote My Beautiful Laundrette].”
Which all brings up the expected question about Brexit. “When we were kids, the map in the classroom was a quarter pink, we owned a quarter of the world,” says Frears. “And as I grew older, I realised it got a little more complicated than that. We don’t own a quarter of the world anymore. The people on the right, that’s what they want. They want to go back to it. I don’t, I don’t want to own anything. But the people who want to turn the clock back, that’s what they are after. Britain was a very conservative country, I just happened to live through one liberal time.”
Victoria and Abdul is in cinemas September 14, 2017