Dame Judi Dench at 82:
her new love and new movies
On the hottest day London has seen in 41 years, Dame Judi Dench is showing off her recently painted toenails as she sips a cup of Assam tea, barefoot in the library room of a West End hotel. The colour is a shiny, bright scarlet. “Isn’t it glorious?” she says. “Red represents passion and life. And it’s a little bit naughty. Like me.” As for the heat, she loves it. “And do you know,” she says, later, “for the past couple of days, I’ve woken up, gone into my garden and taken all my clothes off just to enjoy the blissful air.”
At 82 years of age, Dame Judi – naked or fully clothed – is not quite what you would expect. She demands none of the deference due her status as one of the world’s most celebrated actresses, whose awards include (and this is just a cursory scraping) an Oscar, a Tony, eight Oliviers, two Golden Globes and 11 BAFTAs.
There are no bodyguards in sight, no rules of what she will and won’t talk about, no waiting around for her to arrive. There is, however, a lot of laughter, a good deal of reflection, many wise words and quite a significant amount of eating as she insists we work our way through a hefty plate of shortbread, baked especially for her.
We are talking about her latest movie, Victoria & Abdul, which tells the untold story of Queen Victoria’s extraordinary friendship with a young Indian servant, Abdul Karim (played by the actor Ali Fazal). The relationship began in the last 15 years of her reign and her insistence that Karim be given a whole host of special privileges – including titles and land grants – so infuriated the royal household and her son, Edward VII, that Karim was driven out of the country after her death in 1901.
It is Judi’s second time playing Queen Victoria and she was drawn to the role partly for that reason and partly because “it’s such a wonderful, moving story which needs to be told”. The first time she played her was in 1997 in the movie Mrs Brown, which co-starred Billy Connolly as the Scottish gamekeeper whose