Judi Dench is not tired.
“I’ve had one of those pep-up drinks,” Dench, beaming as she sits down for a recent interview. “I feel rather sparky.”
Caffeinated or not, Dench, 82, remains fully energised. As Stephen Frears, the director of her latest film, Victoria & Abdul, marvels: “She’s the biggest female star in Britain” — a statement that takes a moment to realise how true it is. “It’s phenomenal at her age.”
Dench’s eyesight had deteriorated in recent years due to macular degeneration, so scripts need to be read to her. But that’s done little to slow her down or dim her ferocious, mischievous intelligence. On her right wrist is a tattoo of her personal motto, “Carpe Diem” (“Seize the Day”). She had it done for her 81st birthday.
“The process of learning is quite difficult,” she says of her eyes. “I can do it. I just have to adjust in a different way. You do what you can, don’t you?”
It’s a spirit of undaunted inquisitiveness that Dench shares with her latest character, Queen Victoria. In Frears’ film, Dench returns to the monarch she memorably played 20 years ago in her big-screen breakthrough, John Madden’s “Mrs. Brown.” Dench has credited that film — and the indie distributor who picked it up for nationwide release (Harvey Weinstein) — with birthing her film career.
Victoria & Abdul shares some DNA with Mrs. Brown. The latter chronicled Queen Victoria’s friendship with the Scottish servant John Brown (Billy Connolly) after the death of Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Victoria & Abdul takes place about 15 years later and concerns another unorthodox relationship Victoria struck up, one only relatively recently discovered.
Letters and diaries uncovered in Shrabani Basu’s 2010 book revealed the depth of the Queen’s friendship with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal in the film), a 24-year-old Indian clerk when he arrived in 1887, four years after Brown’s death. Despite the staunch disapproval by the royal court of a Muslim being Victoria’s close confidant, he became her teacher, or munshi, and stayed close to her side up until her death in 1901.
Though Victoria was the Empress of India, she knew little of the colony Britain was busy ruthlessly exploiting. Karim taught her Urdu and Hindi, and exposed her to curry. Victoria even stipulated that Abdul was to be one of the principal mourners at her funeral.
“I certainly never expected to be playing her again,” says Dench. “Suddenly all the work I had done on that all came back and filled up the character. You have a character and you have to find out the details of them, it’s like colouring them in. All that had been done, so that stood me a very good stead. I did feel I understood about her previous life.”
“I hope there’s something in the end of [Mrs. Brown] that you can join up with this,” Dench adds.
It’s not hard to see a commonality between the Victoria of both films and Dench. It’s the queen’s “need for living” and “vital passion” that she most adores about her. “I want to learn something new every day,” says Dench. “I try to. I learn new words. I love it.”
Victoria & Abdul is Dench’s fifth film with Frears, who last directed her in 2013’s Philomena, which earned Dench her seventh Oscar nomination. (Her sole win was for her Queen Elizabeth I in 1999’s Shakespeare in Love.) She and Frears share an unfussy, workmanlike attitude.
“I love his monosyllabic quality,” she says, laughing. “Sometimes he says, ‘Would you like to go again?’ and you know that he means he would like to go again. Sometimes he just walks away and laughs. I love that.”
“She’s clocked that one,” Frears says of his subtle directions. “She’s a highly intelligent woman.”
Frears, the veteran director of The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons, said he would only make Victoria & Abdul if Dench agreed.
“I didn’t know if she would,” says Frears. “It’s possible she turned it down. We organised a reading, so we lured her into the trap.”
Dench was speaking shortly after the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Victoria & Abdul, which may well return the highly decorated actress to the Academy Awards. Her last visit to Toronto, she remembers, was in 1958 on a six-month tour for the Old Vic, playing Henry V and As You Like It. Dench’s stage career — just as illustrious as her film one — has spanned just about every Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov play. There is no Shakespeare role she’s still pining to play, but Dench does think time has given her a greater understanding of some of her classic roles.
“When I look back now I know I could play Lady Macbeth better now,” says Dench. “I know I could play Juliet better now, too. But it’s too late.”
Yet Dench is hardly backward looking. She’ll also co-star later this fall in Kenneth Branagh’s old-fashioned mystery, Murder on the Orient Express.
“It was glorious,” she says of the production. “We were on the train. It was just a lot of good jewellery to wear. A couple dogs to control.”
Dench planned to spend the afternoon at a gallery to “look at some pictures quietly.” She remains on the lookout.
“I look for work,” says Dench, matter-of-factly. “Something to keep me occupied. Learn. Learn. Learn.”
Don’t miss it
Victoria and Abdul is currently showing in the UAE.