Like many artist from abroad, Dame Judith Olivia “Judi” Dench has been known this side of the ocean for a relatively short period of her long and splendid acting career.
Born in Heworth, York, in England, she became a staple presence on stage as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the Old Vic Theater, as well as on television with numerous awards and accolades, and was later recognized as the Best British Actress and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1970, and a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1988. All this before she even had the chance to begin her career in Hollywood and the rest of the world.
Strangely enough, her role as the new “M” in the James Bond series catapulted her to the modern commercial film industry. It’s been said her “M” has been modeled after real-life head of the MI5 Dame Stella Rimington, and she has made such a strong imprint in the series that it was the highest point and most important storyline in “Skyfall” the last film in the series to request her services.
But Dench’s long experience in classical theater brought her to many of her roles (A Room With a View, Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, among others) including the one that earned her an Oscar for Supporting Actress by playing an 8-minute version of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love.
But not everything the Dame does has to do with costume dramas. She has also shined in films that depict very modern characters: The Shipping News, Nine, Rage and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which seemed to have helped launch a genre of films for adults over 60 years old.
She takes all her success with a pinch of salt (just as other great British actresses like Emma Thompson and Helen Mirren), always prompt to throw a joke at the seriousness of her many awards and recognitions. Her latest Oscar Nomination for her performance in Stephen Frears’ Philomena is proof of her acting power to connect with audiences of any age as she manages to tackle a very serious subject with comments on how Americans are obese because of the food portions.
Here is a list of 10 of her Not-to-miss performances. Many more are not listed, but they can be counted in a body of work that is both impressive and a catalogue of how to master the art of acting.
And now that you're at it, check on the other award season nominated actresses:
(1997) Directed by John Madden.
The film was to be part of the Masterpiece Theater on TV, but was acquired by Harvey Weinstein, who understood its commercial value and the portentous performances that lead Judi Dench to be recognized universally (including her fourth BAFTA win and her first Golden Globe Win and Oscar nomination). She accepted her British Film Institute Award in London, saying that her new Hollywood career “was thanks to Harvey, whose name I have had tattooed on my bum ever since”. Her detailed characterization of Queen Victoria is both nuanced and very accessible.
Notes on a Scandal
(2006) Directed by Richard Eyre
Of the two films she made with Richard Eyre, her portrayal of the venomous Barbara Covett is perhaps her most impressive. She was thrilled to be asked to play her since she had read the novel and wanted to find the humanity in the despicable acts of jealousy and dark passion. Needless to say, once again she found herself being awarded unanimously everywhere.
(2001) Directed by Richard Eyre
Based on passages of the life of famous British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, Judi Dench shared her character with Kate Winslet, who played Iris at a younger age, which brought them both an Oscar nomination. Dench’s Iris is the one that deals with Alzheimer, which led her to create a completely different character than the one Winslet was portraying even if both represented the same woman. Because of this, the film is a tour-de-force study in the passing of time and the consequences of experience and terminal illness in a marriage.
Mrs. Henderson Presents
(2005) Directed by Stephen Frears
It was Judi Dench and her co-star Bob Hoskins who requested Frears as a director and the team delivered a delicious film that gave Dench the chance to create one of her “out-of-her-time” characters: Laura Henderson a widowed well-to-do business woman who got tired of the old establishment and wanted to break free by inflicting a little bit of “skin” in the well dormant London society. Dench commands the screen as if it belonged to her.
(2013) Directed by Stephen Frears.
Her second collaboration with Frears brought Judi Dench another Golden Globe-Oscar nomination. In fact, during award season she was always present. Philomena is based on a real life woman who, having lived most of her youth in a convent, under forced work, and passing through the traumatic event of seeing her little son being given away to an American family, goes on to live a long life that brings her back to her origins. Dench recreates the no-nonsense of Philomena, her unflinching yet not in-your-face religious faith and the wisdom of the common woman against the shallowness of intellectuals. Without even try it, she breaks barriers and finds her answers. There’s nothing compared to Judi Dench’s eyes gazing through the gates that once imprisoned her.
My review of this film by clicking on:
(2013) Directed by Sam Mendes
Perhaps the film that develops “M” like never before in the James Bond series, here the story centers on how the MI6 starts doubting of her decisions and she is faced with an enemy from the past. For the first time “M” requires a fully physical and psychological presence, which gives a new dimension in the series’ resurgence.
Shakespeare In Love
(1998) Directed by John Madden
It seems like it only takes 8 minutes to leave an imprint of grandeur and strength of character and Judi Dench took advantage of it, bringing home the academy awards “I feel for eight minutes on the screen I should only get a little bit of him” she said as she received the Oscar. But she deserves the whole trophy and all the accolades, for embodying Queen Elizabeth so fully in a film that fantasizes about Shakespeare.
Ladies in Lavender
(2004) Directed by Charles Dance
This film gave her the opportunity to work closer to Maggie Smith (they had shared the screen before in A Room With A View). Many critics rightfully described the match as natural and delightful, and some even went on to think many of the scenes were really improvised by the Dames, bringing a lot of their acting background into the table.
Pride and Prejudice
(2005) Directed by Joe Wright
Reportedly Mr. Wright convinced Judi Dench to participate in this film by writing a letter that stated “I love it when you play a bitch”. And so Judi couldn’t resist the chance to play the callous Lady Catherine de Bourg, always ready with a stringent remark to shock her co-stars. To counterbalance this performance, Judi spent her time off the set embroidering pillows.
The Importance of Being Earnest
(2002) Directed by Oliver Parker
Perhaps not the most poignant and successful translation of Oscar Wilde to the screen, but with a cast like this that included Judi Dench as Lady Augusta Bracknell, it is mandatory viewing.