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Actress with enduring charm

That Judi Dench is not exactly a femme fatale has worked to her advantage. AJIT DUARA describes how.

"Iris"... story of tender love.

THE STORY has it that Judi Dench was ``discovered" at the age of 22 at the Old Vic playing Ophelia in a production of "Hamlet". Which means that she belongs to an illustrious tradition of British performers who never graduate from Shakespeare. These actors may occasionally do a film or two, supplement their income with the odd Hollywood pay cheque, but rarely deviate from theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, the ``Queen's Men" as they were called in the Elizabethan times. There is a lovely scene in ``Shakespeare in Love" when Queen Elizabeth, played by Judi Dench, discovers that the ``actor" playing Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet" is a woman (Gwyneth Paltrow). Far from being affronted and scandalised by a woman having the audacity to play a role in a play, she empathises with it and compares it to her own destiny as monarch — a woman doing a man's job. In a sense, this could be Dench speaking about herself.

That Judi Dench is not exactly a femme fatale has worked to her advantage. She has always played characters of her own age and this has enabled her to be cast in a wide variety of not very glamorous roles. The film for which she has been given the BAFTA award this year and for which she has been nominated for an Oscar is ``Iris," a movie about the extraordinary and tender love story between the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, from the romance of their Oxford days of the 1950s to her untimely death in 1999. The film has Kate Winslet as the young Iris and Judi Dench as the older and ageing Iris Murdoch and describes the novelist descending into the hell of Alzheimer's disease.

The real John Bayley wrote the screenplay based on two books he wrote about the wife he adored: ``Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory" and ``Desire and Elegy for Iris." Iris, the thinker and writer who he married as much for her physical beauty as her intellect, now cannot even construct the simplest of sentences. As a writer, this is a fate that only the devil would wish for. She fears she is going mad and her husband is her only connection with life and sanity.

The film is a tragedy but it is also a great romance because it shows the love between a man and a woman. The woman is now an infant and cannot understand him, much less conduct herself with dignity. But he loves her for the memory of what she was and the film shows the spiritual content of love.

Can love thrive on memory alone? Without doubt, it is Dench's finest hour as an actress, as she plays a human being in intellectual decline. At a later stage, she cannot even recognise her husband's suffering and his pain when he looks at the woman, once vibrant and alive, who was his wife and, tragically, still is his wife. It would need an actress with a very sturdy temperament to play such an unglamorous role.

Blessed with a strong face and a voice with reach and resonance, Dench is a Yorkshire woman of character. There is a certain Geoffrey Boycott look to her - an expression which says: ``I know the world and how it works.'' It is not cynicism or arrogance, simply supreme self-confidence. This look made for perfect casting as Queen Victoria in ``Mrs. Brown," directed by John Madden, who directed her for a ten-minute appearance as Queen Elizabeth in ``Shakespeare in Love." Indeed, Judi Dench has played every major female role in British tradition - fiction and non-fiction - with the possible exception of ``doing" Margaret Thatcher. It is not as if Ms. Dench lacks sex appeal. After being cast in three successive James Bond movies as ``M" - Golden Eye (1995). ``Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997) and ``The World is not Enough" (1999) - she said that it was ``the closest to glamour as I ever got.'' It is exactly this self-deprecating tone that works so well for her as James Bond's lady boss in the series. She talks to Bond as an indulgent older comrade, perhaps ex-lover, who has to deal with this compulsively womanising, irresponsible man who has never grown up. She rolls his code number on her tongue - double O Seven - as she upbraids him for some bit of recklessness. Considering the high turnover of actresses in Bond films, it is possible that Judi Dench has the distinction of being the longest surviving female in the Bond anthology.

The gravel in her voice has got Dench in trouble before. An innocent commercial for which she once did the voice-over had to be taken off television because it was considered too ``sexy" and ``suggestive" for British audiences. This was, naturally, before the days of ``The Spice Girls." But the voice has gone from husky to highly emotional. In fact this year during the opening film of the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films, we heard her as the narrator in the Oscar winning documentary, ``Into the Arms of Strangers - Stories of the Kindertransport." This is a very moving film about Jewish children from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia who lived with ordinary English families during the war. Great Britain was the only country that took in these child refugees and Judith Dench brings a special warmth to the film with her voice alone. So much so that at the end of the film, should you be unaware of who did the voice-over, you wait for the end credits to find out. Such is the impact of her narration. Oddly enough only Katherine Hepburn had that gravel to her tone, something that gave you the feeling of a woman with a man's sensibility.

With a picture perfect marriage to actor Michael Williams who died in 2001 - he sent her a rose every week of the 30 years she was married to him - her popularity owes a great deal to the affection with which she is held, particularly after the enormously successful TV serials in which she worked, appropriately called A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By. The sheer diversity of her work is striking.

In 1987, at the age of 53, she played Cleopatra in a stage version of Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra and what Enobarbus says in the play about Cleopatra, can be said of Judi Dench: ``Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.''

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