The Best Movie Ever: Judi Dench

The Best Judi Dench Movie Ever


If you’ve ever seen a film featuring an incredible performance by an awesome British actress in her twilight years, then there’s an incredibly good chance that you’ve been denched. Dame Judi Dench is one of the greatest actors of her generation – or any other – wracking up accolades in beloved films for years, including Shakespeare in LoveThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and seven James Bond movies. But what… is The Best Judi Dench Movie Ever?

CraveOnline asked our film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – to each pick one film that denched them hardest, and for the first time in the history of The Best Movie Ever, they all picked the same film. Find out why as they defend their choices below and vote for your own favorites at the bottom of the page!

And come back every Wednesday for another, usually more argumentative installment of CraveOnline’s Best Movie Ever!


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Witney Seibold’s Pick: Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Cate Blanchett Notes on a Scandal Judi Dench

Dame Judi Dench is perhaps one of the classiest damn actresses alive. Ever since her career began in 1959, she has had the uncanny ability to make anything she touches seem more sophisticated. Like many British performers of her generation, she is a professional through-and-through, who will wholly dedicate herself to whatever role she has, no matter how small, trifling, or objectively silly. That natural ease of performance is something that only the most talented of actors have, and holds them up above their contemporaries.

So while Dench is natural and great in the numerous Shakespeare productions she has appeared in (she has played Lady Macbeth, Adriana from The Comedy of Errors, Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mistress Quickly in Henry V, Hecuba (an unscripted role) in Branagh’s Hamlet, and Queen Elizabeth herself in Shakespeare in Love), she lends just as much passion to relatively trifling roles in movies like The Chronicles of Riddick and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

And while I laud and admire all of Dench’s roles taken from classic British literature (in addition to Shakespeare she has played parts from Oscar Wilde, Charlotte Brontë, E.M. Forster, as well as George Eliot herself), and perhaps consider Branagh’s Hamlet to be the best feature film she has been associated with, I think I will choose to recognize her for her original screen characters. As such, I think the best Judi Dench movie would perhaps be the relatively recent film Notes on a Scandal

Released in 2006, Notes on a Scandal features Dench as Barbara Covett, an ultra-stern, tight-lipped, and entirely humorless high school teacher who seems to long for the days of corporal punishment. She’s not a monster, but looks like one if you happen to take one of her classes. Ms. Covett meets a wily and attractive art teacher named Sheba, played by Cate Blanchett. Sheba is blonde, lithe, friendly, and everything Ms. Covett is not. She is also sexually free, and begins having an affair with a 15-year-old student. Ms. Covett uses her knowledge of the scandal to manipulate Sheba. Partly through a sense of cruel justice, but largely because Ms. Covett may be sexually attracted to Sheba. Ms. Covett is a woman who is acting on impulse for perhaps the first time in her life, revealing that she may not know how to have proper passion. How does a woman who is perhaps in love react when her only emotional tool is cold cruelty? The story of the film is uncomplicated, even lurid. But Dench takes a part that might look like a dumb potboiler cliché and creates a deeply disturbed, tragic figure that burned its way into my memory. 


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Brian Formo’s Pick: Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Notes on a Scandal Cate Blanchett Judi Dench

I am unfamiliar with Judi Dench prior to Miramax/The Weinstein Company taking ownership of her career from the late 90s onward. The Dame Judi is most certainly aware of the Weinstein gift of a second career: she’s got a tattoo that says “JD Loves HW” on her ass. She’s been nominated for seven Academy Awards since she turned 63 in 1997, which is remarkable. But I am going to choose the one film that Dench was nominated for that wasn’t for a Miramax or Weinstein Company film: Notes on a Scandal. Fittingly, it’s the one movie where Dench’s bikini zone comes into play. Sorry Harvey, she wants to give that ass to Cate Blanchett in this one.

Notes on a Scandal is a lurid, overwrought potboiler that is so much fun to watch because Dench and Blanchett take it so seriously. When Dench watches her lively, attractive, and creamy (it’s that type of movie) fellow teacher (Blanchett) give in to a student’s attraction, the distance between Dench and Blanchett (who were becoming confidants; Dench perpetually alone, Blanchett in a distant marriage) grows wider than their already wide age gap. Blanchett is sliding down the age pole to boink a 15-year-old. And Dench’s Barbara was of an era where that funny feeling that Blanchett stirs up in her tingly spots (approximate to her HW tattoo) would need to be quashed. 
Dench’s appearance in Notes on a Scandal is like a body whose flesh has been pushing inward to distance itself from any desire. The direction (from Richard Eyre), the script (from Patrick Marber), the score (from Phillip Glass), and the child actors all treat Barbara like the old biddy beast Gangy (the horror movie in-joke in Arrested Development). Everyone shrieks when she appears in the darkness. But Dench and Blanchett treat Barbara as a wounded animal. That purposeful disconnect from material and performer keep Scandal from being pure camp, and instead, make it weirdly passionate.
It’s the type of passion you’d get a tattoo on your ass for. Between Scandal and Iris, Dench should reserve her other butt-cheek for Eyre.


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William Bibbiani’s Pick: Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Notes on a Scandal Judi Dench

Thank you, Brian. That was… vivid.

I’m not sure I can praise Notes on a Scandal any more eloquently than my compatriots already have. It’s a sharp dramatic thriller, as cruel as any Neil LaBute film and as trashy as a Lifetime Original Movie. If you’re going to get Denched, get denched by Notes on a Scandal, that’s what I always say. 

Because as talented as Dame Judi Dench is – and she’s one of the most talented thespians on the planet – it’s frustrating to see how rarely she ends up in a role that truly deserves her. Too often she seems to get stuck playing stern matriarchs, or unexpectedly cool matriarchs. And she owns those roles; there’s a reason she’s come to be known as James Bond’s unofficial mother.

But a role like Notes on a Scandal doesn’t come along often enough, giving this incredible actress a part that’s worth properly juicing. Here she has a role of impressive complexity, as full of dignity as it is with tawdry desire. It is a part written for an older woman, like most of her roles, but it is not one that falls within the rigid dramatic confines in which we normally mire our older actresses. It’s an incredible, albeit incredibly vile character and it proves just how amazing Judi Dench can be when given something interesting to work with. I wish there were more roles like it, because although Notes on a Scandal is the best Judi Dench movie ever, it’s not one of the best movies. It’s just the one that gave her the most interesting things to do.


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