Total Recall

Judi Dench's 10 Best Films

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel star.

by | March 5, 2015 | Comments

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made more than $135 million worldwide while offering a handful of finely seasoned veteran actors a chance to prove that Hollywood doesn’t always have to be youth-obsessed — and this weekend, the old gang is back together (with a couple of new additions) for the sequel, the sensibly titled The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This gives us the perfect opportunity to pay tribute to returning Exotic star Judi Dench, whose long list of well-received roles includes everything from Merchant Ivory period pieces to a long stint as M in the James Bond franchise. You won’t find any of her 007 movies on this list, because they missed the cut after we added up and averaged out their scores, but that’s just another testament to the strength of Dame Dench’s filmography. It’s time for Total Recall!

10. Wetherby (1985) 67%

Dench earned her second BAFTA nomination for her supporting work in David Hare’s Wetherby, a 1985 drama about the increasingly unsettling goings-on that unspool following the shocking death of a young man in the cottage of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) whose party he’s recently attended. Beautifully cast and endowed with patiently explored narrative depths, it also started a busy string of acclaimed theatrical releases for Dench: Although she’d focused much of her energy on stage and television work since making her film debut with Four in the Morning in 1965, she found herself in increased demand after the mid-’80s, rounding out the decade with A Room with a View, 84 Charing Cross Road, A Handful of Dust, and a supporting role in Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded Henry V. Of Wetherby, Roger Ebert wrote, “A haunting film, because it dares to suggest that the death of the stranger is important to everyone it touches — because it forces them to decide how alive they really are.”

9. My Week with Marilyn (2011) 83%

Attempting to portray a screen legend like Marilyn Monroe seems like the kind of thankless task for which a director would need to find an inexperienced actress who didn’t know any better — but fortunately for Simon Curtis, whose My Week with Marilyn adapts a pair of Colin Clark memoirs inspired by his time on the set of Monroe’s The Prince and the Showgirl, Michelle Williams was ready and willing to take the job. And while the events that unfold in the movie amount to little more than a footnote in Monroe’s story, her empathetic work in the role helped lift My Week above rote biopic material — as did the reliably solid performances turned in by an ace supporting cast that included Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormond, and Eddie Redmayne. As Stephen Whitty put it for the Newark Star-Ledger, “No other actress has quite understood the frustrated, maternal side of Monroe that informed so many of her performances. Or quite recaptured that absolutely luminous quality she had on film.”

8. Jane Eyre (2011) 85%

Never one to shy away from a well-mounted period piece, Dench availed herself of Cary Fukunaga when the director decided to film the umpteenth adaptation of Jane Eyre in 2011 — and as she had when she signed up for Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice in 2005, she ended up being part of an unlikely latter-day classic in the bargain. Led by a marvelous Mia Wasikowska in the title role, this new-look Eyre hews closely to the Charlotte Bronte novel while adding loads of gloomy British atmosphere and assembling a parade of talented actors — including Michael Fassbender, Sally Hawkins, and Dench as Mrs. Fairfax — to bring the story to life. “Some of us are Jane Eyre addicts,” wrote Moira MacDonald for the Seattle Times, “and the new movie version directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga gives us just the right fix.”

7. Pride and Prejudice (2005) 87%

If you’re going to try and put together a new version of something that’s been adapted as many times as Pride and Prejudice, you’d better bring something new to the table and put together one heck of a cast — and director Joe Wright accomplished both with his 2005 version of the Jane Austen classic, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as the star-crossed Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. A back-to-basics affair that tried to put a little dirt back under the fingernails of source material often used as the basis for excessively prim adaptations, Wright’s Pride also honored the novel by rounding out the cast with supremely talented actors, including Dench (as the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh), Carey Mulligan, Rosamund Pike, and Donald Sutherland — an approach that paid dividends at the box office, where the movie raked in more than $120 million worldwide, as well as with critics like Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer, who wrote, “Dare I say that even Jane Austen herself would have delighted in the final triumph of Ms. Knightley’s quick-witted Elizabeth in this film? Yes, I do, and all the highbrow and middlebrow cinephobes of the world be damned.”

6. 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) 86%

On paper, the story of a long-distance friendship that evolves through letters exchanged between a New York City book lover and a London bookstore owner might not seem like the most inherently filmable idea, but as 1987’s 84 Charing Cross Road proves, you don’t need a lot of flashy visuals to create absorbing cinema — particularly when you’re aided and abetted by a passel of talent, both behind the scenes (including director David Jones) and in front of the cameras, where audiences were treated to the sight of veteran actors Anne Bancroft, Judi Dench, and Anthony Hopkins sinking their considerable dramatic chops into an expanded dramatization of the real-life letters between American writer Helene Hanff and bookseller Frank Doel. Dench was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress BAFTA, while Bancroft won Best Actress, and critics were generally delighted with Charing Cross; as Geoff Andrew wrote for Time Out, “The film has nothing to do with easy nostalgia; it’s about real, credible people, and as such finally becomes very moving.”

5. Notes on a Scandal (2006) 88%

A modern spin on the sort of mean-spirited melodrama that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis might once have chewed through, Notes on a Scandal stars Dench opposite Cate Blanchett in the tale of two London schoolteachers whose friendship teeters on the precipice of one woman’s terrible secrets and the other’s seething misanthropy. Fashioned from luridly pulpy ingredients but elevated by its powerful cast (including Bill Nighy as Blanchett’s husband), Scandal wowed critics like Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who wrote, “Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett star in a misanthropic game of cat and mouse from which no one emerges unscathed, including saps like us who think we’re watching a film about other people.”

4. Shakespeare in Love (1998) 92%

Would people have been as enthralled by Romeo and Juliet if William Shakespeare had written it as Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter? According to the lightly history-inspired Shakespeare in Love, we missed the chance to find out only because the writer’s block-stricken playwright (Joseph Fiennes) had the good fortune to meet a bewitching young woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose secret presence in his stage company led to a love affair that ended up inspiring the classic play. While it may not have been accurate, Love offered a whole lot of talented actors a chance to strut their stuff, including Paltrow, who won a Best Actress Oscar, and Dench, whose appearance as Queen Elizabeth I earned her her own Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. “It restores to centrality of consciousness one of the great geniuses of our civilization,” wrote Stephen Hunter for the Washington Post. “It makes us care for his greatness, for his passion, for his worth. In no uncertain terms, it tells us Willie Boy is still here.”

3. Philomena (2013) 91%

She’s walked off with countless scenes in supporting roles, some of them amounting to little more than a few lines. With Philomena, Dench was offered the rare opportunity to carry a movie — and she proved she was more than up to the task, investing the fact-based story of a woman who, with the help of a journalist (Steve Coogan), attempts to reconnect with the son she gave up for adoption decades before with warmth, humor, and plenty of honest dramatic heft. Dench didn’t win her Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Philomena — one of four the film was up for, including Best Picture — but perhaps this story’s appeal is best summed up by the Best Actress honors she took home from the AARP Annual Movies for Grownups Awards; at a time when thoughtful movies for adults are often said to be in short supply, here’s a thoughtful rejoinder. “At its core,” observed the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, “this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty.”

2. Mrs. Brown (1997) 92%

Dench walked away with her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her work in John Madden’s Mr. Brown, a tasteful — if not entirely factual — dramatization of the real-life story of a Scottish servant (Billy Connolly) whose relationship with the widowed Queen Victoria (Dench) throws the royal court into a tizzy. Originally intended to air as an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, it went on to accrue acclaim — and a healthy $13 million at the box office during its arthouse run — while proving that its star’s surprising midlife career renaissance was absolutely no fluke. Observed Janet Maslin of the New York Times, “Mrs. Brown transcends its period setting not only with a keenly observed struggle between love and duty but also with the kind of controversy that envelops the Queen and her servant.”

1. A Room With a View (1985) 100%

Dench earned her first BAFTA for her work in A Room with a View, taking home a Best Supporting Actress award — one of several the film won, including Best Actress (for Maggie Smith) and Best Film. Looking back, it isn’t difficult to see why: Although modern viewers may watch this sweeping period drama — about an Edwardian lass (Helena Bonham Carter) whose irrepressible fondness for a caddish rake (Julian Sands) is thwarted by an older cousin (Smith) who believes he’s a bad influence — and see pure Merchant Ivory formula, it’s important to remember that at the time, there was no such thing. Room set the template for dozens of pictures to follow, setting a bar that all but the very best have tried in vain to match — aided in no small part by a robust supporting cast that, aside from Dench, included Daniel Day-Lewis and Simon Callow (who earned a BAFTA nomination of his own). “This is a complete movie, full of life, love and hope,” wrote Dan Jardine for the Apollo Guide. “While we may occasionally forget that truth is beauty and beauty truth, thankfully films like A Room With a View will always be there as a reminder.”


Finally, here’s Dame Judi doing her part to bring awareness to ALS in last year’s ice bucket challenge: