Bottom Line: Dame Judi Dench far prefers theater (it offers more control than director-centric moviemaking), but she’s also a marquee draw in TV and movies. She’s always stellar no matter the material (see: “The Chronicles of Reddick”), and she’s a real draw for (older) moviegoers, from two-hander “Notes on a Scandal” opposite Cate Blanchett to Dench’s other franchise, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Career Peaks: Forty years after her stage debut as Ophelia at the Old Vic, Dench broke out in 1997 in “Mrs Brown” as Queen Victoria, earning her first Oscar nomination. (She notoriously claimed that she had Harvey Weinstein’s name “tattooed on my bum, which I hadn’t. I had my make-up lady design something that I showed him. He’s never forgotten it.”) She became the first woman to play MI6 chief M in the Bond films, inspiring the producers to expand the role, starting with 1995’s “Golden Eye” and continuing through three more Brosnan and three Daniel Craig films, finally meeting her moving demise in 2015’s “Skyfall.”
Assets: Dench is widely regarded, along with drama school classmate Vanessa Redgrave, as one of the best actresses of her generation. She can do tough matriarch, authority figure, queen, or vulnerable woman and she does it all in “Victoria & Abdul.” The Working Title/Focus Features release debuted at Venice, played Toronto, and opened September 22. Despite mixed reviews and a Metascore of 57, Dench earned raves and the movie totaled $65 million worldwide, a testament to her star power.
“When people say ‘less is more,’ I now know that’s true,” said Dench at a Los Angeles opening-night Q&A. “When I was 23, I didn’t believe that. I tried every way to make that girl [Ophelia] mad. I didn’t want to do films. But I watched wonderful film actors. As long as you have the thoughts in your head, the camera actually does the rest for you. The camera will pick up what you’re thinking. It’s short-cut acting.”
Biggest Problem: Dench remains vital and is sustaining her energy at 83, but age-related macular degeneration means she can’t see very well.
Awards Attention: She has eight Olivier Awards, and appeared in four films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: “A Room with a View” (1985), Best-Picture winner “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) (which also yielded her a Supporting Actress Oscar win as Queen Elizabeth), “Chocolat” (2000) and Frears’ “Philomena” (2013). All seven of her Oscar nominations came after she was over 60, doubling the three nominations each scored by Melvyn Douglas, Dame Edith Evans, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Laurence Olivier,` and Spencer Tracy. She waited seven years between Oscar nominations for “Notes on a Scandal” (2006) and “Philomena” (2013).
She’s nominated this year for a Comedy Golden Globe as well as Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role for the Screen Actors Guild Awards. (BAFTA recognition is also certain.) These nods usually lead to the inevitable Oscar nomination — and Dench is revered by her fellow actors. But this is a competitive year for Best Actress.
Latest Contender: Dench played Queen Victoria for the first time in John Madden’s “Mrs. Brown,” when she fell in love with her second husband (Billy Connolly) after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. “Victoria & Abdul” marks her second go-round as the queen, this time as an older woman in love with her “Munshi,” or teacher, an Indian servant (Bollywood star Ali Fazal) who rose in the ranks at her court to be her closest confidante. Abdul taught her Urdu, while she taught him English, to the consternation of the court.
The Munshi story emerged when London writer Shrabani Basu started researching curry and discovered pictures and evidence of a deep relationship between Victoria and Abdul, which the monarchy — in the person of Victoria’s son and heir Bertie (Eddie Izzard) did everything it could to bury forever. “He was jealous, and didn’t want the reputation of the monarchy somehow besmirched,” said Frears. “He was destroying the mementoes she sent Abdul.”
When the book was published in 2007, the general public found out about the Munshi. “Billy Elliott” writer Lee Hall wrote the often charming and humorous script for Working Title. “I like the jokes,” said Frears. “I like the idea that the empire and the court was ridiculous, and in the middle was a woman who held the power, who was the most powerful woman in the world. She knew it was ridiculous. You’ll find President Trump is much the same!”
While the movie follows Abdul’s journey from India, and Frears insisted that an Indian actor play the role, the movie has come under fire for favoring Empire and monarch Victoria over Indian emigre Abdul. (It doesn’t seem to have affected the box office.)
“Hall’s script is a reevaluation of Victoria,” said Dench, “the prospect that in her 80s, with nothing going on, she had that great surge in desire in her that she had with Albert and Brown. It doesn’t go away. It might be a bit dormant, but suddenly it is worth getting up tomorrow for.”
Dench’s fifth collaboration with Frears, after her nominated roles in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (2005) and “Philomena” (2013), is lush in scale. The actress was awed when Frears got permission to shoot at Victoria’s own Osborne House — the first time a movie was allowed to film there. “Sitting at the queen’s morning room at her desk looking out window,” said Dench, “it was her morning room, her desk, her view! That was thrilling.”
One of the film’s central images is corpulent Victoria in her long nightgown being lifted out of bed by her servants, dressed, and sent on her way. “She’s lazy, she didn’t want to get out of bed, so they had to yank her out,” said Frears, “put her on the throne, to rule Britain and the world.”
She was depressed, said Dench: “She’s had her passionate life with Albert, she’s had a relationship with John Brown, and after he died, she didn’t think there were any more treats on the way. She had to get on, she was in her 80s, all her friends were dying, and she had every day to fulfill her all the responsibilities of sovereignty, told where to be at a certain time, all the way through every day.”
So she comforted herself with food. “She had to have one pleasure in life,” said Dench. “After Albert died, she didn’t give a damn. ‘No sex? I’ll eat.’ She got a bit slimmer when she was with John Brown.” Frears made Dench get sloppy. At the great hall banquet when Abdul dares to look into the eyes of the Queen, Frears got a kick out of taking his camera down the center of the long table to dwell on close-ups of Victoria stuffing her face. “He’d come down the table and say ‘cut there,'” said Dench. “‘You need much more food down your throat.’ He made me have more and more bad manners, much more soup down your front, throw it up!” She was also told, after a scene when she was eating boiled eggs in bed, that she had somehow consumed 11 eggs.
“We have this picture of the indomitable Empress of India,” said Dench, “‘We are not amused.’ You find she was amused a lot of the time, because she had a wonderful treat happen to her, a young man came and gave her a present.” Dench is certain that the Munshi “prolonged her life. She could talk to him as a lover, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, every aspect of affection. I’m sure she wouldn’t have lived as long as she did — it was the last 13-15 years of her life that he was around.”
Latest Misfire: She played a supporting role as the abbess in long-delayed Weinstein Co. fiasco “Tulip Fever,” and the year before appeared as Miss AvocetIn in Tim Burton’s underwhelming “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”
Current Gossip: She had “CARPE DIEM” tattooed on her right wrist when she was 81.
Next Step: Dench is currently filming Trevor Nunn’s “Red Joan,” as KGB spy Joan Stantley and starts her role as Commander Root in her “Murder on the Orient Express” director Kenneth Branagh’s Disney book adaptation, “Artemis Fowl.”
Career Advice: Keep going for it. “I am always frightened,” said Dench. “I also know that the fear that you have turns into a wonderful kind of petrol you can use; that’s vital. The day I walk on and don’t get feel frightened is the day I will get really depressed.”