An eye disease plays Judi Dench, to be seen in the film from tomorrow Allelujah, to such an extent that she can no longer read scripts and sometimes does not recognize colleagues on the set. “But I won’t let this defeat me,” the award-winning actress said in a conversation with The parole.
She doesn’t really want to know anything about ‘already’ looking back on a rich film and theater career, yet Oscar winner Judi Dench (88) shares two benchmark moments that are important to her. “On stage I played characters from almost the entire oeuvre of William Shakespeare. That’s what I’m most proud of,” it sounds without any hint of arrogance.
With more devilish pleasure, she then reveals a fifty-year-old anecdote. “It was in 1971, if I remember correctly. In London I met a director for a possible film role. I’ll never forget what he said.
“Thanks for coming, but I’m afraid your face isn’t suitable for the camera. I’d be surprised if you ever star in a movie.’ Well, I’ve built quite a nice career in this field. I do not like to speak ill, but let me put it this way: he was firmly wrong.”
First supporting film role
The meeting with this filmmaker made Dench decide to concentrate on theater work for the time being. After a few successful TV appearances, the British only landed her first major film role at the age of 63, as Queen Victoria in the costume drama Mrs. Brown (1997). Dozens of titles followed, including Chocolat (2000), Iris (2001), Notes on a scandal (2006), Philomena (2013), SkyFall (2012) in Belfast (2021).
She is modest about her Oscar two years after that first leading role, for Shakespeare in love (1999). Dench could only be admired as Queen Elizabeth for 3 minutes, but of all the actors from that film classic, she made the most impression by far. Incidentally, she had already broken through to the general public four years earlier with her supporting role of James Bond’s boss M in GoldenEye (1995).
Even at her current age, Dench still has the choice of movies. The fact that we no longer see her on the silver screen on the assembly line has little to do with a lack of energy. About ten years ago she was diagnosed with macular degeneration (AMD); an eye disorder of the central part of the retina that causes you to see less and less well.
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“I can’t read scripts anymore,” says the actress, who was awarded a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1988. “I even have to be told who is coming up to me these days or I might be talking to the wrong person.”
Think laughs. “It happened a few times that I politely asked how someone was and started a whole conversation, only to hear: ‘I don’t think we’ve met before’.”
Scenarios need to be read to her now. “I suddenly realized that I used to be able to learn texts very easily thanks to a photographic memory. With every copy of Shakespeare’s works I still know exactly where on which page the important monologues are.”
“The fact that it no longer helps me is something I have to overcome. But that will happen,” she says firmly. “I will not let this defeat me. Someone will invent something that will make it possible again. So it’s not: I’ll never read again. Earlier: next week it might be possible again.”
In the new movie Allelujah Dench plays a resident of a regional care home that is threatened with closure. The small-scale tragicomedy is partly an ode to the British national health service NHS, an institution that is held in high esteem in the United Kingdom.
“During the covid period, we clapped for healthcare workers and we should continue to do so,” said Dench, who hopes that Allelujah also makes the viewer more aware of themes such as ageing. “I don’t like the idea of older people being left behind, that they don’t matter anymore.”
State of mind
The actress is aware of her privileged position as a celebrity. “Although I am now at an age where people suddenly waddle backwards when they know how old you are. Then I think: why are they doing that while I’m only 54 years old? Because I am convinced that your age – as cliché as it sounds – is just a number.”
“You don’t have to act like an eighty-something. When I was very young, I acted out Polonius at the theater school Hamlet, like a man well over 100 who could barely cross the stage. It’s a state of mind that you adopt, that’s what I mean to say.”
“Go on, appreciate what you get to experience every day, find your friends and family, and be thankful,” Dench continues optimistically. “My husband Michael (Williams, who died in 2001, ed.) and daughter Finty (Williams, 50, also an actress, ed.) used to have a good friend, a lawyer from Germany, who always said: don’t focus on the minuses , but on the pluses. Find them if necessary or make pluses. That sounds simple, but I hold on to it to this day.”
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