Judi Dench

Nothing Like a Dame

dame1

03/05/18

Take four national treasures. Decant them into a country house and allow to ferment for a couple of days. Throw in four glasses of champagne, then sit back and watch what happens. This is pretty much the recipe for Roger Michell’s charming documentary, Nothing Like a Dame, and, given how unpromising it sounds, it’s amazing how entertaining the results are.

The dames in question are, of course, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, old friends of long standing, and this is a regular get-together they’ve kept going over the years, meeting up at the country home that Dame Joan shared with her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier.

What the film offers us is a series of anecdotes – many of them laugh-out-loud-funny – and a chance to look back at four astonishing careers, with vintage clips of their first forays into theatre and film. Totally unscripted and extremely relaxed, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug, fully engaging while it’s happening but not particularly memorable when the credits have rolled. Dame Maggie arguably gets the majority of the best lines, sporting a sarcastic streak that makes the most throwaway remark an absolute killer, while Dame Judi spends much of the film helpless with laughter as she and her friends discuss some of the experiences they shared in those early days. What this is, more than anything else, is a film about ageing and the effects of it. Seeing footage of them, so young, so vital, so filled with enthusiasm for their chosen careers is simultaneously enervating and also vaguely melancholic.

There isn’t much to talk about here in terms of a review, but lovers of theatre and admirers of these four women in particular will find plenty to enjoy. Roger Michell, as he openly admits in the little feature that accompanies the main film, doesn’t so much direct as simply point the camera and allow it to run. This certainly won’t be for everyone, but lovers of theatre – and of the work of the four dames – are in for a treat.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Murder on the Orient Express

03/11/17

Let’s face it, we know what we are going to get with this one. Agatha Christie’s story is a classic of its kind, and Poirot’s style of detection a thing of wide repute. The trailer makes it clear that this incarnation doesn’t stray far from the cosy murder-as-family-entertainment tradition, so we settle in for a glossy, star-studded slice of nostalgia; we know it won’t be challenging but we think it might be fun.

And it is fun, to a point. It’s handsomely done, with glorious vistas, and the opening scenes in Istanbul are wonderfully vibrant, teeming with life and energy. Kenneth Branagh is convincing as Poirot, as pedantic and idiosyncratic as Christie paints him in her books. And the unthinking decadence of the upper classes is beautifully clear, their sumptuous surroundings barely noted, the train’s luxury accepted and dismissed.

It’s a shame, then, that we never feel any sense of claustrophobia, even when the train breaks down, and everyone is trapped in the middle of nowhere, even when the sleazy Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered. I won’t give any spoilers here, just in case,  although I imagine most people know the plot; suffice it to say, I know there are reasons why the suspects’  reactions are not as we might initially expect, but still… No one really mixes; no one seems irritated with anyone else; they’re all so separate, as if they’re not in close proximity. It’s all plot and no character, despite the starry cast.

The starry cast is a problem too. They’re all magnificent, but I only know that from their other work, not from what they do here. There’s nothing for them to do. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Caroline Hubbard, is perhaps the luckiest; there’s some substance here, so she can milk her role. But to under-use actors as fine as Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz et al is criminal: these are all essentially cameos.

In the end, sadly, this is just a pointless remake of what is – sorry, Agatha fans – a silly story. It’s not awful – everything is bigger here, including Poirot’s moustache – it’s just not very good.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Victoria and Abdul

27/09/17

It’s 1887 and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has completely lost her zest for life. A widow for something like thirty years (and missing the attention of her much-loved Ghillie, the late Mr Brown,) she suffers silently through a daily onslaught of official functions, signing papers and attending dinners – all under the baleful gaze of a whole retinue of servants who feed her, dress her and even keep watch on the Royal bowel movements. And then along comes Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome young servant despatched from his hometown of Agra in India in order to present the Queen with a rather unprepossessing commemorative coin. In so doing, he breaks with protocol and actually dares to look her in the eye. Something clicks between them. Pretty soon, Abdul has been appointed as her personal servant and, not long after that, as her ‘Munshi’ or teacher, when she decides she’d like to learn to speak Urdu.

Predictably, the appointment causes much consternation in the Royal Household, not least to Edward, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), who feels that a servant – and a Muslim one, to boot – does not make a suitable companion for his mother. Despite this, when Victoria learns that Abdul is a married man, she insists that he send for his wife and daughter immediately and has the family installed in their own cottage on the palace grounds.

This is an interesting true life story in which Dame Judi does her usual seemingly effortless magic, while director Stephen Frears takes the opportunity to nail the jealousy, spite and hypocrisy that always simmers under the polite surface of the aristocracy. Karim, however, remains something of an enigma. Was he a genuinely devoted servant or, like so many others in the Royal household, simply looking to exploit the situation to his own ends? We’re never really sure – and Victoria doesn’t seem to care. Whatever, it’s clear the real exploitation was visited upon the colonies, so who could blame Karim for trying to turn the tables to his own advantage?

Whatever the truth of the situation, he was clearly shabbily treated by Edward and by the supercilious Lord Henry Ponsonby (a lovely swan song from the late Tim Pigott-Smith). There’s also an appealing turn from Adeel Akhtar as Karim’s politically-astute friend, Mohammed, who, shorter and less handsome than his celebrated companion, is doomed to be forever in his shadow. This is an assured little film, beautifully performed by a stellar cast and, while the world doesn’t exactly move for me (a bit like the Royal bowels, I suppose), it’s nonetheless well worth watching, if only to fill me in on a little bit of history I wasn’t previously aware of.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Winter’s Tale

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Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company Plays at the Garrick 

Live Cinema Screening

26/11/15

The Winter’s Tale is something of a curiosity, the work, it seems, of a playwright who was still experimenting even as he neared the end of his career. Like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale contains romance as well as realism, and attempts to fuse the yin and yang of theatre, encompassing both comedy and tragedy. And, although this play is arguably more uneven than The Tempest, it is, nevertheless, a delight to watch, particularly when performed and directed with such poise.

Live cinema screenings are a godsend to those of us who don’t live in London, allowing us access to plays we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. But the format does have its limitations, most notable in this production in the lighting. Presumably the audience at the Garrick could see perfectly well, but the low lighting didn’t translate well to the big screen, making the whole of the first half rather difficult to discern; indeed, even the lighter, brighter second half seemed curiously muted, considering its lively and pastoral nature.

This aside, the production worked well. Branagh’s is a traditional interpretation of the play, performed with scholarly precision rather than flights of fancy, playing to the strengths of its distinguished cast and crew. Judi Dench is a fine Paulina – of course she is – and Branagh (equally predictably) makes a convincing Leontes. The contrasts – between town and country, prince and pauper, repression and ebullience – are all writ large, and there’s both charm and energy aplenty here.

Why then am I sighing or shrugging when people ask me what I thought of this? I suppose it just seems like I’ve seen it all before: this is a proficient and assured production, but there’s nothing new or exciting about the way it’s done. Maybe there doesn’t need to be; I’m sure there are many theatre-goers who would see this as a positive and, certainly, I’m not a fan of innovation for innovation’s sake. Still, it all feels just a little too familiar to stir enthusiasm.

A good production, but not a thrilling one.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield