At the hands of costumer designer Consolata Boyle, actresses have been transformed into some of their most iconic roles. The two-time Oscar nominee helped Helen Mirren metamorphose into The Queen and Meryl Streep slide into the role of the formidable Margaret Thatcher for The Iron Lady.
However there is nothing quite like a Dame playing a Queen. Step forward Dame Judi Dench who returned to the role of Queen Victoria for the Golden Globe nominated, Victoria and Abdul. Tracing the unlikely friendship between a dying Queen and her Indian servant, Boyle's costumes reach iconic status once again.
Here Consolata Boyle talks our through the process of addressing two great icons: Queen Victoria and Judi Dench…
“When I was approached about Victoria and Abdul I was delighted but both challenged and excited about doing a project that had so many different elements. In Victoria and Abdul there were the more conventional elements associated with the British royal court and then there was the exotic element with Abdul’s life in India. I just loved the story because it has a resonance with our own time. Also I have worked with the director Stephen Frears (The Queen) quite a bit so it was lovely to work with him again and with the team that I usually work with which is really a fantastic bonus.
There was actually no scarcity of source material despite the friendship between Victoria and Abdul being a great scandal at the time and the royal household destroying evidence of it. In particular Bertie - Victoria’s son who became king after her death - was very disarmed by it and felt very threatened by that friendship, as were many other people. So it caused a great political scandal and outcry as well as other kinds of turmoil within the royal household so some of the references and images of Abdul with Victoria were literally destroyed.
But a surprising amount of material was found after tough researching with lots of personal writing from ladies in waiting, the household staff and personal friends who remembered that friendship and remembered Abdul. It was slightly more difficult from the Indian/Agra end because he hadn’t been recorded that much in that context visually or in any other way so there was a lot of re-imagining on that front and extrapolating from any information we could get hold of. However in the end you have to leave research behind and you can’t be intimidated by it as despite it’s value you start rejecting it and choosing what you want in use in order to tell the story in the script you are bringing to life.
Judi our wonderful leading lady was padded out throughout in order to play an elderly Victoria and she bore that with such good humor and grace. Victoria in that age was almost the same width as she was tall – but we had to make that work with Judi, as Victoria was far larger than anything Judi could carry. Ali, who plays Abdul had to be padded as well so there was a massive amount of padding all around.
Anything to do with royalty on any continent involves them getting through a vast amount of clothes. Now obviously for our story’s point of view we couldn’t represent that and as we were working to a very limited budget with a very tight schedule so there was only so much that we could do. But there was a vast amount of changing and a vast amount of construction of costume.
Dame Judi is such a consummate professional and knows, deeply, the power of costume to either enhance a story or to be distracting and wrong. She knows exactly how to use costume and also she transcends costume by completely disappearing into what she wears. We put forward everything and then Judi - like all great actresses or actors - will take that and run with it and make it their own. They change it into something else because what we do is only part of the story telling process. Costume isn’t there to be only decorative unless from a story point of view it’s meant to be - it is absolutely part of the character.
In Victoria and Abdul costume reflects that element of her royal life that was full of ceremony, full of detail, full of tradition and full of weight. Visually her clothes would have weighed her down because the Victorians had such heavily embossed clothes. Like their exterior world they were over-decorated, over-fussy, dark, and consumed by the foreboding of death because individuals were dying so often that people were perpetually in mourning. Victoria and her household were perpetually in mourning, too. So I think Judi is the kind of artist who's able to take all that weight and make it feel light by somehow letting it all fall into place and be logical.
Judi is incredible at switching and disappearing at any given moment into character. If you watch her it’s absolutely thrilling, just how she goes in and then snaps out - she’s uproariously funny and the next minute she’s heartrendingly tragic and moving. The ilk of actors I work with travel many millions of miles in their character and when you see them at the end they act completely as if nothing has happened. That has it’s own magic, it really does.
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Watching the likes of Meryl Steep (during the Iron Lady) transform into character during the fitting process is absolutely incredible because that’s where you see a fundamental part of that transition and metamorphosis. That change can be surprising to you and sometimes it’s equally surprising to the actor. It’s a mystery and it’s a form of magic.
Sometimes you can sense when a project is destined for Oscars. I can remember very clearly when I was working on The Queen with Helen Mirren - the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Helen Mirren - there was something special happening. It was such a small little project which was initially destined for television but the more you were around the set and the more you were near her, the more you knew that something absolutely extraordinary was happening. It was like something taking off that we didn’t really have control of.”
Victoria and Abdul is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday 22nd January.