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Dame Judi Dench stars in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
1:29pm Friday 24th February 2012 in Film news and reviews
Dame Judi Dench may have fallen in love with India while filming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but unlike her character, she has no plans to retire there or anywhere yet.
WAITING to speak to Judi Dench is like anticipating an audience with the Queen. When finally ushered into the presence of acting royalty, it was concerning to hear the great Dame coughing.
The 77-year-old York-born actress promptly allayed fears she was suffering from a cold. “No, I haven’t at all. I don’t know what it is,” she says.
“We were filming Skyfall [the new James Bond caper] and it was very, very cold. I think I’ve just a bit of a cough. It’ll only last today and then it will be away.”
Discussions turn immediately to her latest film role in John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opens today.
For this ensemble comedy drama about disparate retired Brits heading for a new life in India, Madden has gathered a dream team of venerable British stars, including Dame Judi, Dame Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Tom Wilkinson.
Playing recent widow Evelyn, whose husband has left her with mountains of debt, Dame Judi has perhaps the greatest ‘journey’ to contend with, as Evelyn learns to become both financially and emotionally independent.
Embracing the internet, Evelyn finds details online of a hotel for the “elderly and beautiful” in colourful Jaipur, run by ambitious manager Sonny (Dev Patel), and her blogs about her adventure serve as a narrative for the film.
For Dame Judi, the opportunity to work again with director John Madden had immediate appeal, after her Oscar-winning turn in Shakespeare In Love and the Oscar-nominated Mrs Brown. On top of that came the chance to visit India for the first time.
“Have you got half an hour?” she asks, before listing everything she loved about the country.
“I can’t wait to go back. Like my character, I became completely infatuated by it. Incredibly charming people, the crew couldn’t have been more colourful, wonderful, welcoming and funny. And we got to see so many things: the traffic, the birds, the colour, the light.”
Dame Judi even attended a royal wedding that was being held in the hotel where the cast were staying, and her eyes light up at the recollection.
“We weren’t invited, but there were rehearsals, with elephants and white horses, so we stood on a balcony to watch,” she says. “Everybody started to arrive and all the women came up to the balcony with us, and the men were in this great procession.”
The cast were then invited to join the wedding party for a cup of tea: “We said, ‘We’re not dressed properly’ but they said it didn’t matter at all. So we did,” says Dame Judi.
Having lost her husband, actor Michael Williams, to lung cancer in 2001 she was able to draw on her experience of being widowed to play Evelyn. “Everything that happens to you is fed into a kind of computer, I suppose,” she says. “It sounds rather... what’s the right word?... Cold, rather calculating. But nevertheless, every experience you have, you sometimes draw on if you’re an actor.”
In Madden’s film, Dame Judi plays a woman who is unused to negotiating the nitty-gritty of daily life but is suddenly forced to rise to the challenge.
“It’s the whole thing of somebody suddenly dying and you thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m the person who has to change the plugs now, I’m the person who has to do the bills’. I’d had that experience already, so I suppose I used that.”
While she acknowledges it is unusual for so many older actors to be on screen together at once, Dame Judi believes it should happen more often – and she would change only one thing about the film.
“Maybe the acting, but then I’m hyper critical about myself,” she says.
Given that she is a revered actress with so many iconic roles and award nominations to her name, it is a surprise to discover she is so self-critical.
“It’s better for me as time goes by,” she says. “I watch [my performance] after I’ve forgotten all about it, because otherwise I get fixated and my judgement goes too.”
Despite her self-doubt, she will always say yes to one role: M in the Bond films. At present she is playing her for the seventh time, shooting Skyfall at Pinewood Studios, but her lips are sealed when asked what M is up to in the 23rd film in the franchise.
Still, it must be nice to return to the Pinewood family?
“Yes. It’s very nice indeed to go back. There are some brilliant sets and it’s being directed by Sam Mendes, who I worked with, oh, when he was a little baby boy really,” she says, laughing at the memory. “It was about the second or third thing he did. He directed me in The Cherry Orchard on stage – and now he’s doing this.”
At 77, Dame Judi is in demand as much as ever and will defy a debilitating eye condition, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), to continue working, even though it has left her unable to read scripts or see who she is talking to across the dinner table, according to a national newspaper.
“You get used to it,” said Dame Judi, who has someone come in and read scripts to her, “like telling me a story”.
“I’ve got glasses and lenses and things – and very bright light helps. I can do a crossword if it’s bright sunshine but if a cloud comes out I can’t see anything.”
Hence running away to India like Evelyn is not on her wish list.
“As long as there is a possibility of working, I’m not going to retire because if I retire, nothing will work any more and it’s hard enough as it is,” she told the newspaper.
Retirement, no, but she does not rule out a return to India. “I’m very tempted to go back,” she says. “I hope the film is a very strong advert for India, because it should be.”