LONDON — It's a remarkable actress who snags her first leading role in a feature film a full 40 years after making her professional debut.
Dame Judi Dench is indeed a remarkable actress, one of the finest produced by Britain in the last 50 years. But for personal and professional reasons she has assigned film work a secondary importance. The stage remains her first love, and she is unapologetic about the fact.
"I don't like filming very much," Dench says. "I've turned down a lot more film work than I've actually done. I don't enjoy the process. What I like about theater is rehearsing, getting an audience in and trying to get it right. With filming, you get one chance and then it's like some dead thing, crystallized forever. You can't change it."
She mulls over these thoughts in her dressing room at the Royal National Theatre, where she is currently appearing in the new David Hare play "Amy's View"--ironically, playing a well-known actress to whom the West End stage is ceasing to offer regular work. The play opened to mostly rave reviews two weeks ago.
But this performance is merely the latest in a long, glittering career. A veteran member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has played most of the great female Shakespearean roles, but by no means confines herself to the Bard; one of her more notable recent parts was in the Sondheim musical "A Little Night Music" at the National.
Dench, 62, is also beloved by British TV audiences for her work in two comedy series, "As Time Goes By" and "A Fine Romance." She became Dame Judi in 1988 when she received the female equivalent of a British knighthood.
Though she began treading the boards of various British stages in the late 1950s, Dench, unlike Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave--those other distinguished British actresses of her generation--was never offered the right starring role on the big screen. She has played a dozen supporting roles on film, and those who saw "GoldenEye," the last Bond film, may remember her as the first woman to portray the spy master M.
This has now changed. Dench stars as Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown," a film about the unlikely, loving relationship between the stern British monarch and John Brown, the Scottish servant to her late husband, Prince Albert. From 1864, Brown helped coax Victoria back into public life after a long reclusive period when she mourned Albert deeply.
Brown (played by Scottish comedian-actor Billy Connolly, best known to American audiences for the TV sitcom "Head of the Class" and its spinoff, "Billy") assumed a protective role toward Victoria, and overruled senior English courtiers in her presence; unlike them, he would address her bluntly and candidly rather than flattering her. Their odd relationship gave rise to gossip in the court and drew the attention of satirists who nicknamed the couple "Mr. and Mrs. Brown."
"People want to know what the relationship was really like, and I can only tell them what I've read about it," Dench says. "I think it was nonsexual--after all, she was a queen and he was a servant--but it was as passionate a relationship as you can imagine. These days people think it can't be a totally fulfilled relationship unless it's sexually fulfilled too. But even if she never used the word 'love,' she certainly loved Brown."
In her research Dench found out Queen Victoria put fresh flowers on the pillow of Brown's bed each day from the time of his death to her own. She asked to be buried with a photograph of him in her hand. And she temporarily lost the use of her legs after both Prince Albert's death and Brown's. "Clearly," she insists, "this was not a casual relationship."
Nor one without a whiff of scandal. Astonishingly, the producers of "Mrs. Brown" found it difficult to secure all their first-choice locations in Scotland--because, 130 years on, the film's subject matter is deemed to be controversial.
"The other thing about all that," Dench says, "is that a TV film was made about Prince Charles and Princess Diana's marriage not too long ago, and certain Scottish locations were used. And when the film was finally seen, it got people into severe trouble."
(A film about John Brown, starring Sean Connery, was apparently planned several years ago, but when Britain's Royal Family voiced doubts at the prospect, the production was aborted. These days, of course, the House of Windsor lacks the same ability to scare off filmmakers.)
The attraction of "Mrs. Brown" for Dench was the chance to play opposite Connolly, who was cast first. She greatly admires his comedy work. "I have to tell you, I wasn't Billy's first choice," she says, tongue in cheek. "He wanted Bob Hoskins. Bill saw him playing Victoria in some production at the Edinburgh Festival and said he was definitive." Her eyes roll. "So I'll settle for that--being Bob Hoskins' understudy."