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Full of mischief

Maureen Dowd |

I watch as Dame Judi Dench eats her chilled corn soup with saffron and sips champagne. At 82, she is just as elegant as you would imagine, with silver hair, ice-blue eyes and crisp diction. She’s just five foot one inch tall but her reputation is towering.

Dench is one of the greatest British actresses, star alumni of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sally Bowles in the London production of Cabaret and an Oscar winner for her eight-minute turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. She died in James Bond’s arms, as the murdered spymaster M. And she has portrayed so many queens on stage and screen that when she plays a duchess, it seems like a demotion.

So what to talk about with this regal creature? Well, what else? Lingerie, tattoos, rap music, younger men, sex and her hobby of embroidering cushions with raunchy sayings. This dame, as it turns out, is full of mischief. Dench got an Oscar nomination 20 years ago for playing Victoria in Mrs Brown, the saga of how the queen grew close to a younger man, a servant who doted on her after her beloved Albert died, outraging her household.

Now she is back in Oscar contention for Victoria & Abdul, the saga of how the queen grew close to another younger man, also a servant who doted on her after the other one died, again outraging her household.

The first of the forbidden relationships was with John Brown, a tall, rugged Scotsman nicknamed “the Queen’s stallion,” seven years her junior. As Julia Baird wrote in Victoria the Queen, Victoria was so ensorcelled by the handsome Brown that she asked to be buried with a lock of his hair and a leather case full of his photos in her hand.

His handkerchief was also placed on top of her body, alongside Albert’s. The second entanglement, with the added complications of race relations in the colonial age, was with Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old Indian Muslim servant who became the 68- year-old monarch’s “munshi,” or teacher, instructing her on Urdu, the Quran and mangoes.

Dench is far more padded as the older Victoria. “She was 46 inches around her waist, and she wasn’t tall,” the actress told me. Both movies begin with the small, round queen – widowed after having nine children with Albert – dyspeptic and stonyfaced, miserable and in mourning with her black veil, only to show her brightening and melting under the sometimes impertinent ministrations of her attractive younger servants.

Even though her name became a synonym for priggishness, I observe, Victoria was a sexy little thing, wasn’t she? We are not amused,” Dench says with faux hauteur, offering the line associated with Victoria. Comparing the queen to the interior of a tree (Dench loves trees), she said: “She had a huge passion and need inside her.

She had a happy life with Albert and then those years with John Brown, and then I’m sure she’d certainly given up by then and was just caught up in the drudgery of everything. And suddenly, that wonderful kind of flowering, where she thought, ‘This is really something worth living for.’” She said she understands that “heady state” well, discovering someone you can laugh with and learn from. “As a person,” she said, “I’m very, very susceptible. For 60 years, I’ve fallen in love with people.”

Is there any advantage in women getting involved with subordinates? She said they could get smitten with “the dustman, the postman, the butcher or the prime minister. It happens to be about the people”. I ask Dench about her younger man.

“This is where I get up and throw the table down and sweep out,” she said with a puckish smile, pounding the table.

Actually, she’s quite open about her new beau and he’s with her in New York. Dench’s husband of nearly 30 years, the actor Michael Williams, who sent her a red rose every Friday, died of lung cancer in 2001. She met David Mills, a conservationist, in 2010 when he invited her to help open a new red-squirrel enclosure at the wildlife centre he runs near her home in Surrey, England. He is 74, and she prefers to call him a “jolly nice chap” rather than a partner. Despite losing some eyesight to macular degeneration, Dench still seems elfin, determined to focus on “the pluses”.” I ask about her tattoos. She had Swarovski crystal body art spelling out “007” on her shoulder for a Bond gala and premieres and had “Carpe Diem” engraved on the inside of her wrist in St. Martin’s for her 81st birthday at the urging of her daughter, Finty.

Weinstein says, “She is one of the world’s great actresses but also great personalities. She speaks in the Queen’s English so elegantly and then she’s flirting and speaking like British sailors on shore leave. Johnny Depp and I will go to our graves thinking she’s the hottest of them all.” I ask her if there’s a trick, when you’re the daughter of a doctor and a wardrobe mistress, to playing a monarch as well as she does.

“It is more difficult finding out why you’re saying the lines,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a monarch or you’re playing a slut down the street. Same process.”

I wonder why America is still so obsessed with monarchies in culture and politics after breaking away from one, noting our current mad king Trump, the princeling Jared, the princess Ivanka and the way the administration projects racial insensitivity as if it were a colonial power. Dench says she doesn’t watch The Crownand only watched “a bit” of the recent 20th anniversary commemorations of Princess Diana’s death. “I just felt very sorry for the boys,” she said.

“They didn’t ask for this, but they do it well.” The dishy 30-year-old Bollywood star, Ali Fazal, who plays Abdul Karim, has come to dinner with Dench. And over his scallops and “Smokey Sour” mescal cocktail he offers a story of his own about hated colonial statues.

He was shooting the last scene of the movie, when the queen has died and Abdul is back in India, withering away at the feet of a giant statue of Victoria in front of the Taj Mahal. Production designers had made the statue, since the Victoria statues that were once all over India had been removed.

Suddenly, a bunch of right-wing Indian nationalists charged the set in Agra. “I start hearing the voices, and they’re hooting and talking about Victoria, ‘Send Victoria away,’ and ‘We don’t approve of this,’” Fazal recalls. “So I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re coming for us.’ So I’m like, ‘Shut this down, get in the tent’.” “I FaceTimed you from there, remember?” he says to Dench.

The two have just as much chemistry in person as on-screen, when his brown eyes meet her blue ones, and he sometimes takes her hand as he talks. I ask Dench if she will miss being in the next Bond film. “No,” she said, adding, “I had the most wonderful time.” James Bond is supposed to get married to the woman he loves in the next installment. That will go swimmingly, I note mordantly. “Who knows?” she says with a laugh.

“I’m not around to give him any advice or a sharp look.” She understood why Daniel Craig made a joke about slashing his wrists if he had to do another Bond film.

“It’s a huge commitment,” she says. “But he has a ball. And the thing is, he wants a theatre career, too. And he went and played Iago, didn’t he?”

(The Independent)