Exclusive: This Judi Dench Clip Proves What You Already Know
Fact #1: Dame Judi Dench is a undeniable force of nature. Fact #2: Colonialism is a dangerous, uncomfortable thing. Let's celebrate the former and condemn the latter.
Ahead, we have an exclusive clip from the upcoming film Victoria & Abdul, starring Dame Judi Dench as the second-longest reigning monarch of the United Kingdon, and Indian actor Ali Fazal as a servant gifted to the Empress of India, who forged an intimate bond with the ruler. If you love period pieces, stories of crotchety old people finding a touch of softness, or just broadly sweeping emotional storytelling, this one's for you.
It's hard to watch that clip without being immediately struck by a few things. First, let's just acknowledge that Judi Dench is one of the most remarkable treasures of our time. Eddie Izzard might be joking when he says Dench is "more of Victoria than Victoria," but the Oscar-winning actress (and seven-time nominee) does loom larger than life. A vocal advocate for progressive causes and never one to mince words (or give many interviews), she's inspired us constantly over the course of her 60-year career. A few highlights:
On words she will and won't allow:
"'Old' is another one—I don't allow that in my house. And being called 'vintage.' I don't want any of those old words. I like 'enthusiastic' and I like the word 'cut' because that means you've finished the shot." (The Telegraph, 2015)
"You are only as old as you feel. It’s not to do with age; it’s something to do with inside. It’s the engine." (Radio Times, 2014)
On what matters most:
"My family. My family have always been the most important thing in my life, and after that everything is secondary." (The Guardian, 2004)
Dench has the ability to silence with a single withering look, whether she's playing a queen (Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown, or here, in her second turn as Victoria) or a famed boss needing only a single letter to identify her (James Bond's M, of course). Her career has spanned the stage and screen in roles that tally up 120 IMDB acting credits alone, and her unwillingness to do press only furthers the mystique of Dame Judi Dench. Well worth celebrating—and leaning on for inspiration any time we might need it.
But, there is a second, more sobering point to make here. And that is that there is an obvious absurdity to a system in which one human being can be gifted to another. It's the undercurrent to the relationship between these two, and it's an ugly piece of history that echoes across various narratives of colonialism and empire-building—from the Ottoman empire to British rule in India to the Atlantic slave trade. It's a shameful history we all have a responsibility to remember as exactly that—systemic subjugation of entire races and ethnic groups—and not varnish as an exotic, idyllic time of romanticized ideals and beautiful things.
Victoria & Abdul toes that line, and creates room for characters in the film to speak out against the racism and suspicion someone like Abdul would have been subjected to, especially in rising so quickly in the estimation of the queen. But there's a responsibility that sits with the audience as well, in consuming these types of period pieces. What are we taking away and remembering about the experiences of these people? How are we pushing ourselves not to repeat the mistakes of our historical predecessors? When does our love of period pieces become too fixated on beautiful costumes and charming, over-the-top details?
For anyone who is interested, The Telegraph has a fascinating deep dive on the true story behind the movie—including how this relationship was unearthed relatively recently by a writer working on a book about curry, despite the fact that immediately upon the queen's death, Abdul was forced to leave England, and all of Victoria's letters to him were destroyed upon her death. Well worth the read, and some careful consideration as well.
Victoria & Abdul opens in NYC and LA on September 22, and in additional cities on October 6. Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Lee Hall, the film stars Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Paul Higgins, Robin Soans, Julian Wadham, Simon Callow, and Michael Gambon.
Words: Neha Gandhi
Video: Courtesy of Focus Features