Wednesday, September 13, 2017

ALL HAIL, DAME JUDI DENCH!

Original caricature by Jeff York of Dame Judi Dench in VICTORIA & ABDUL (copyright 2017)
It seemed for a while this summer that this year’s Best Actress Oscar race might find room for the wondrous performance of Gal Gadot in WONDER WOMAN. Now, she’ll have a tough time making the final five with so many performances getting head wind coming out of Telluride and Toronto. Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER), Emma Stone (BATTLE OF THE SEXES), Annette Bening (FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL), Rooney Mara (UNA), Frances McDormand (THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI) and Saoirse Ronan (LADY BIRD) are now chief competitors for the prize, as is the grandest dame of them all - Dame Judi Dench. At 82, she is just as formidable a lead actress as any. (Talk about your wonder woman!)

In VICTORIA & ABDUL, Dench’s 48th film to be released later this month, she returns to the role of Queen Victoria. She played England’s longest ruling monarch in 1997’s MRS. BROWN and it earned her the first of five Oscar nominations for Best Actress. Her performance in VICTORIA & ABDUL is equally terrific and don’t be surprised if come March she’s back on Oscar’s stage clutching the gold statue. (Dench won Best Supporting Actress back in 1998 for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and her eight sterling minutes as another monarch - Queen Elizabeth.)

What makes Dench such a contender this year is that this new version of Victoria allows her to plum even greater depths than she has explored before on film. This Queen is formidable, of course, as most of Dench’s roles tend to be, only this time the royal ferocity is tempered with utter despair, vulnerability and the ravages of age. This is a Queen Victoria unlike any that have appeared onscreen before. This is the ruler in the winter of her years, and they’ve not been kind to her body, mind or soul.

In fact, despite the vulnerabilities of her characters in PHILOMENA and NOTES ON A SCANDAL, Dench has never played this much of a down-and-outer before. This Victoria is utterly depressed, doddering, disengaged, obese, and barely able to physically make it through a day. She merely goes through the motions during her official duties, and her staff consider that a "win." We’re introduced to this Victoria when she is roused from a deep sleep by her bevy of attendants. Is that really Victoria/Dench being hoisted out of bed by her staff and dressed because she cannot do so herself? Indeed. Dench is wearing a fat suit here, and she’s appearing without a lick of makeup, but it's the ‘walking dead’ aspects of the queen that Dench captures most vividly. Never has Dench appeared so alarmingly small and weak in a role. It’s a display of bravery for the actress who was 81 while filming, and it jolts the audience. 

Granted, if Victoria was so inert, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. And indeed, the longest-serving Queen does find reason to get up in the morning again. The catalyst is a young man from India named Mohammed Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). He’s a lowly government employee in India given an incredible opportunity to leave his home when he’s officially assigned to travel to England to bestow a special medal upon the Queen during her Golden Jubilee celebration. He looks at the trip as a vacation more than a duty, taking in all that he can of ruling Britannia.

When presenting the medal to the Queen after a dinner that has seen her slurp, chomp and snooze, Abdul is instructed not to look the Queen in the eye. Of course, he does as he wants to get a sense of this legendary woman. When the Queen stares back at him, their eyes lock and her cold, disinterested eyes suddenly regain some of their old sparkle. Those eyes gazing upon her have such warmth and respect that it's no wonder she perks up. Her curiosity is piqued and soon she is instructing the royal staff to make room for Abdul in her daily routines. 

Abdul proves to be less of a server though, and more of a teacher. Shocking to everyone, including those of us in the audience, Victoria starts to acquiesce to the young man, asking him to teach her his language, Indian customs and his country's history. He happily obliges, and not only opens her mind to understanding her British providences more, but he also helps her get outside of her own self-pitying head. 

This is a very similar story to that in MRS. BROWN. There, Queen Victoria started out down in the dumps as well, deeply depressed by the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert in 1861. She withdrew from public life and became inert. Not knowing what to do, her royal staff turned to gregarious servant John Brown to help buoy her spirits, hoping that some of his enthusiasm and brio would rub off on her. Indeed, it did. Soon, she was smitten with him. They spent hours together, with Brown becoming her closest friend, advisor, and some say, lover. Scottish comic Billy Connelly played both the fun and the fury of Brown perfectly, and he and Dench made for quite the bantering onscreen duo.

Now, with VICTORIA & ABDUL, Dench is mining a similar vein, but Abdul is not the headstrong he-man that Brown was. He’s gentler, calmer, and he seems to serve as both elixir and salve to what ails her. He is never in a battle with her, but manages to win her over most every time through his calm logic and earnest manner. 

This film is more comedic than MRS. BROWN, not dissimilar to how Peter O'Toole's Henry II was played seriously in 1964’s BECKET, and yet became more comedic in the take on him in THE LION IN WINTER four years later. Here, Dench's Victoria stretches similarly and the thespian is able to extract laughs as well pathos from her monarch, just like the late, great O’Toole did. (Interestingly, he was nominated for Best Actor for both of his takes on the character. Will Dench follow suit?)

Particularly funny is how girlish Dench makes Victoria in Abdul's presence, almost as if she is sitting on daddy’s knee learning of exotic lands and his tales of adventure. Clearly, she never thought another man would be so significant in her life after Brown’s death in 1883 from pneumonia while still in her service, and is utterly tickled by her relationship with this young Indian. She may act like the child in a way, but she also comes to treat him in front of her staff like he's her ‘adopted’ son. Further complicating matters in the palace is the fact that, like Brown, Abdul becomes a trusted confidante and advisor.  

One of the reasons Victoria is drawn to Abdul is that he truly seeks nothing from her. He is there to be her humble servant, and he reminds her that as Queen of England, she is there to serve her country too. She likes his take on things and it helps her find pools of renewed strength and commitment to her duties. Abdul never sees her as a pathetic old dowager, stumbling and fumbling through her waning years, but instead as an extraordinary woman who still has much to accomplish. 

Abdul ended up helping Victoria rule for another 14 years. During that time, he not only taught her about his Muslim faith, the Koran, and customs in India, becoming her “Munshi” as she called him (Persian for teacher), but he helped guide her to a more open and humanistic governance. Of course, none of that sat well with her stiff, upper-lipped staff and they did all that they could to thwart Abdul’s efforts. Victoria fought back and held her ground, but she sadly realized that she was surrounded by cads, opportunists and even traitors. Seeing Victoria dress them down is where the ultra-steely Dench screen persona we all know and love finally appears and her berating of friends and family is one of the highlights of the film. 

VICTORIA & ABDUL, like all period pieces, comments on our modern society as well. A straight line from Abdul facing bigotry as he's deemed an "other" by the upper class can be directly drawn to the birther movement, police discrimination running rampant these past few years, and our current POTUS' maligning of Mexicans and failure to properly condemn the KKK and Neo-Nazis. The bigotry on display in VICTORIA & ABDUL is even more pathetic as Abdul is shown to be a man equal to any Brit in manner, language and bearing. Compared to Victoria’s actual son Bertie (played with hilarious huffing, puffing, and snarling by the estimable Eddie Izzard), Abdul is a true English gentleman.  

Still, this movie, more often than not, keeps a light touch, even with its clear messaging. Director Stephen Frears has always excelled at  indicting British pomposity whether it's in THE QUEEN or PHILOMENA. He's a superb director of actors too, and has brought out a new high point from Dench, as well as coaxed inspired bits of buffoonery from veteran Brits like Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, and Tim Pigott-Smith in his final screen performance before his death in April of this year. Even comic Simon Callow shows up for five hilarious minutes to essay composer Giacomo Puccini singing for the Queen. 

Still, despite all that talent in front of the camera, this film is essentially a two-hander. Fazal perhaps plays his character's earnestness with a touch too much naiveté, but he is indeed a charmer. He’s breezy when needed, which is a good two-thirds of his performance, and grave when he must deal with the buffoons attempting to thwart him in some of the heavier scenes. I wish that the dialogue between the two went deeper at times, but screenwriter Lee Hall keeps most of their conversations light and fun. Abdul’s banter with his fellow traveler Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) plays blunter and more political than that between Monarch and Indian servant, but perhaps Hall is indicating that Abdul always felt that he could be more open with a fellow countryman.

Both Victoria and Dench are lionesses in winter, and in VICTORIA & ABDUL, they both are still roaring. Dench's is a bold performance here, often showcasing Victoria at her absolute worst. But in the end, she portrays a monarch who still managed to find greatness and do good for her nation. And Dench makes us cheer. It's a outstanding performance, and one that come Oscar time in March, could find find Dench again reigning supreme. 

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