Judi Dench: 10 essential performances

We celebrate one of Britain’s greatest and best-loved actors with a look at 10 of Judi Dench’s best performances. Just don’t call her a ‘national treasure’…

Nikki Baughan
Updated:

GoldenEye (1995) production still

GoldenEye (1995) production still

It’s difficult to think of an actress who more gracefully embodies the term ‘national treasure’ than Judi Dench, although it’s an accolade she famously rails against, once telling The Times that she finds it “too dusty… too staid”. If there is one thing Dame Dench is not, however, it’s staid. During a television and film career encompassing almost six decades and well over 100 performances, the actress has chosen projects that defiantly reject the expected roles for a woman growing older on screen. Here are 10 of her most memorable performances.

The Cherry Orchard (1981)

Director Richard Eyre

The Cherry Orchard (1981)

This BBC TV movie was the second time Dench appeared in an adaptation of this particular Chekhov play; after portraying the flighty teenage Anya in 1961, she returned two decades later as Madame Ranevsky, a Russian aristocrat unable to face the loss of her eponymous estate. Working with first-time director Richard Eyre, with whom she would later reteam for both Iris (2001) and Notes on a Scandal (2006), Dench portrays Ranevsky in subtle strokes; she is no wailing dinosaur, rather a regal, delusional and utterly mesmerising creature stymied by her unwillingness to change.

As Time Goes By (1992-2005)

As Time Goes By (1992-2005)

Dench has made her mark in many classic TV series, from Love in a Cold Climate (1980) and A Fine Romance (1981) to the more recent Cranford (2007-10), but this gentle BBC comedy, which ran for 10 seasons over 13 years, gives her one of her greatest and most endearing small-screen roles. As the middle-aged Jean, reunited with her teenage sweetheart Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) after 40 years, Dench took full advantage of a character that allowed her to showcase her perfect comic timing. She brings a sense of wit, honesty and intelligence to the concerns of ageing without patronising or poking fun.

James Bond series (1995-2012)

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

Dame Dench has been a luminescent presence in the James Bond franchise since she made her debut as 007’s boss M in 1995’s GoldenEye, opposite Pierce Brosnan. Throughout the seven films in which she appears, Dench’s M was a straight-talking, no-nonsense influence on Bond and, in modern outings Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall (2012), a professional and emotional rudder for Daniel Craig’s more emotionally vulnerable spy. Even though M took an instant dislike to her most volatile charge, declaring him in GoldenEye to be a “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur”, by the time of Skyfall’s climactic end the two were inextricably, powerfully linked.

Mrs Brown (1997)

Director John Madden

Mrs Brown (1997)

After a long and varied stage, television and film career, Dench’s first cinematic leading role was as the imposing Queen Victoria in John Madden’s lauded drama. In mourning after the death of her beloved Albert, Victoria is slowly brought back to life by doting servant John Brown (Billy Connolly), and the pleasure of this story lies in their chemistry and its emotional impact. Initially an imperial, impenetrable monarch, Dench’s Victoria unfurls under Brown’s attentions; a performance that showcases authority and humility in equal measure.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Director John Madden

Show them the money: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

That she took home the best supporting actress Oscar for a role which demanded only eight minutes of screen time highlights the scene-stealing strength of Dench’s performance in John Madden’s 1998 historical romance. Her empirical, astute and dauntingly bustled Queen Elizabeth is a delight, particularly in a scene in which she warns Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) of his bride-to-be’s pretensions of virtue: “She’s been plucked since I saw her last, and not by you.” It’s also a role that, despite its eloquent brevity, knowingly references Dench’s astonishing career. “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession,” she asserts. “Yes, by God, I do know about that.”

Iris (2001)

Director Richard Eyre

Iris (2001)

Richard Eyre’s drama stars Dench as author Iris Murdoch (played in younger life by Kate Winslet), whose battle with Alzheimer’s puts a strain on her life-long relationship with husband John Bayley (Jim Broadbent). Dench brings her trademark vim and vigour to portray a spirited woman at the mercy of cruel illness, ensuring this is no moribund epitaph but a celebration of Iris’s talent and strength. While only Broadbent went home with an Oscar (Winslet and Dench were both nominated), it remains one of Dench’s finest, most well-observed performances.

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Director Richard Eyre

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

This adaptation of Zoe Heller’s novel is notable not only for its stellar pairing of Dench and fellow powerhouse performer Cate Blanchett, but also because it gives Dench a chance to showcase a different, darker side. As school teacher Barbara Covett, who develops an unhealthy obsession with colleague Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), she is both sympathetic loner and unlikeable despot with a monstrous superiority complex. Dench embraces the overt B-movie genre elements of the narrative with gusto, but also brings a deep sense of vulnerability which prevents the character – and the film as a whole – from going entirely overboard.

Cranford (2007-10)

Directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson

Cranford (2007-2010)

As befits an English actor of her standing, Dench has undertaken her fair share of period drama, most memorably in roles such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Mrs Fairfax in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011). Spinster Matty Jenkins of two-part BBC drama Cranford is, however, the most enjoyable; not least because she is one of the bonneted, loose-lipped circle of incredible women who run everyday life in the titular 1840s town. Demure and empathetic, Matty’s deference to strong-willed older sister Deborah (Eileen Jenkins) does nothing to dampen the intensity of her character, highlighted to perfection in an unforgettable scene in which she movingly recounts a recurring dream of having a child.

Rage (2009)

Director Sally Potter

Rage (2009)

While Sally Potter’s low-budget, semi-experimental film – a series of talking-head interviews shot backstage at a high-profile New York fashion show – divided audiences, there’s simply no arguing with Dench’s bravura turn as cynical critic Mona Carvell. Dressed all in black, with a platinum bob, Dench snaps, crackles and pops against a bright fuchsia background and her delivery is as vibrant as her appearance. “Fashion’s not an art form,” she sneers. “If anything it’s pornography.” From her acerbic, shrewd commentary to the off-hand way in which she flames up a spliff with a pistol lighter, Dench triumphantly, brilliantly raises a middle finger to traditional roles for older women.

Philomena (2013)

Director Stephen Frears

Philomena (2013)

Winning her a seventh Oscar nomination, Dench’s central performance as an Irish woman determined to track down the son she had as a teenager in the 1950s is a masterclass in both range and restraint. Stephen Frears’ drama could easily have succumbed to melodrama, but the quiet dignity and unwavering faith Dench brings to a perfectly pitched script (co-written by Steve Coogan, who plays the journalist following Philomena’s story) lend the film a moving, subtle power that transcends the trappings of the genre.

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