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Empathy, even to the darkest character

December 24, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

Stratford-upon-Avon, England — SHE is probably the most popular British actress in a generation, a standing earned less by her storied appearances here on the Shakespearean stage, possibly, than by her years as reigning queen of the sitcoms on BBC. It has been estimated that an election for queen would send Elizabeth II packing and put Dame Judi Dench in Buckingham Palace.

Is it modesty, then, that leaves the 72-year-old actress, recipient of nearly every acting award that Hollywood, New York and London have to offer, perpetually afraid of being out of work? Reluctant to take a break, shy to ask for parts, working till her knees go out because she's afraid she'll get stuck waiting for the phone to ring?

"It's just wanting to be employed in my case," she says simply. "Trevor Nunn once said to me: 'You're always in tears on the first night.' And I said, 'I'm so frightened that nobody's going to ask me to do the next thing.' I get so fearful about that kind of thing. You know, when you get in your 70s, there's lots of other people waiting there, just here --" and she flutters a hand to a place behind her shoulder, just out of view, to an apparently familiar presence. "And they're all waiting, waiting for just ... that ... little ... push...."

Needing to be needed, sudden loss and loneliness -- Michael Williams, her husband of 30 years and habitual costar, died in 2001 -- these are emotions the unremittingly sociable actress brought to "Notes on a Scandal," the story of a spinster's monstrous loneliness and the calculated damage she inflicts in her search for connections -- a story that might have been Dench's first cinematic turn as a grand villain. Except that Dench injects the admittedly nasty role with her own improbable vulnerability.

Adapted from Zoe Heller's Mann Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, "Notes on a Scandal," opening Wednesday, also stars Cate Blanchett as the bohemian young art teacher who serves as both catalyst and victim to the elder Dench's predatory friendship.

Anyone who has followed the Mary Kay LeTourneau saga on the West Coast will recognize the gritty, delirious affair Blanchett's Sheba plunges into with a 15-year-old student, the dark secret that serves as the vehicle by which the aging, battle-ax history teacher played by Dench catches her newfound friend in a web of obligation and unspoken threat.

Clash of expectations

SET in a decaying London secondary school, the plot, under the direction of Richard Eyre (who also directed Dench in "Iris"), swoops toward disaster almost from the first halting, touching encounters between the two women, each needy in their own way, each propelled by conflicting passions that spin them like pinwheels into inevitable and disastrous conflict with each other.

The elderly Barbara Covett's life of serial solitude in the throb of busy London, in which going to the laundromat can constitute a weekend's events and the casual brush of a bus driver's hand sends spasms through her groin, comes up against the warm chaos of Sheba's domain, a large, fashionable flat shared with her much older husband, petulant teenager daughter and son with Down's syndrome.

Even before Barbara's discovery of Sheba's affair begins to render them, as she hopefully reflects, "bound by the secrets we share," her arrival at Sheba's apartment for an introductory Sunday lunch in a stiff, newly bought dress and carefully coiffed hair puts her painfully out of place amid the casual jeans and sweat shirts of her hosts -- a small point, but one Dench plays with painful precision.

"We took a long time over the look of her," Dench said last week in an interview at the old Royal Shakespeare Company theater here, where she is playing in "Merry Wives -- The Musical."

Dench herself manages to be elegant at 5 feet, 3 inches, wearing a soft-draped cream cashmere jacket over a brown wool sweater and trousers. (She still makes many "sexiest actress" lists, not only because of her blazing film role as Lady Macbeth some 27 years ago, but also in no small part thanks to her relentless humor, warm intelligence and often-intimidating blue eyes.)

For the colorless Barbara, Dench pulled a cap over her lustrously silver pixie top to create the impression of bald spots under thin, flyaway frizz. The script called for Barbara to have gray underwear in her drawer; Dench balked, arguing that women with flawless underwear, not to mention great manicures and good cars, can be deeply damaged nonetheless. But the clunky shoes, the shapeless skirts -- they created the foundation on which Dench fashioned a woman almost everyone would find a way to dislike.

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