June 12, 2008

Judi Dench Collection


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): *** (Overall)

The BBC has lately bestowed upon us several collections of work by England's current grand dames of entertainment: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and-—the Dame under consideration here--Judi Dench. This nicely boxed set, featuring many of her early appearances, includes--count 'em!--eight discs, each one packed with several hours of the actress' work, much of it prime and dating back to her Cherry Orchard of 1962.

Made for television and taken from the Royal Shakespeare Company version of Chekhov's masterpiece (staged by Michel Saint-Dennis and directed for TV by Michael Elliott), the play was shot in black-and-white and appears here in a surprisingly well-handled transfer to DVD. John Gielgud adapted this version and also plays Gaev, with Peggy Ashcroft as Madame Ranevsky, Dorothy Tutin as Varya, Ian Holm as Trofimov, Roy Dotrice as Firs, and Dench as daughter Anya. Gielgud's version is stately, as are the moving performances; it is a pleasure to see all these fine actors, many of whom are gone now, in top form.

Two decades later, Dench assumed the role of Madame Ranevsky for Richard Eyre's 1981 production, with an equally starry cast: a very young (and slim!) Timothy Spall, Bill Paterson, Anton Lesser, and the wonderful Harriet Walter as a surprisingly delicate Varya, perhaps the best performance of this role I have ever seen. Twenty years see a distinct difference in style: more "everyday" and real--with an odd nod to the sexuality of Mme. Ranesvky, as David Rintoul's hunky Yasha gives her an out of-the-blue and rather sensual shoulder and neck massage.

Neither production gets much genuine humor out of the master (The Pearl Theatre Company in New York City managed the best job of this that I have ever seen in its production staged, I believe, by Joseph Hardy.). But both versions here are compelling, and watching Dench, first as Anya and then as her mother, is quite telling. Interestingly enough, the color transfer of the '81 version is not as sharp as the black-and-white '62 version.

Discs Two and Three offer a set of famous early plays for British television called collectively Talking to a Stranger. In black-and-white, with a generally decent transfer, they tell the story of a family--mother, father, and adult brother and sister--with the perspective of each given in one of the four 90-minute sections. Dench's version is the first, and while it is well enough handled, her character grows exceedingly tiresome after a time. The writing was probably considered rich and real for its period (1966), but, often obvious and repetitive, I am not so sure how well it holds up today. The plays were written by John Hopkins and directed by Christopher Morahan.

Disc Four offers perhaps the best and worst of the lot. The latter is represented by the Feydeau farce, Keep an Eye on Amélie, in a lead-footed version in which everyone seems too old and too intelligent for this sort of thing. I am not certain that the British are the best purveyors of French farce, but by all means, takes your chances. In any case, the production lasts only an hour.

Following this, on the same disc, is one of the gems of the collection, Michael Frayn's play Make and Break, in which the head (and his staff) of a company that makes building components is attending a trade fair in Frankfurt. The half dozen strange and wonderful people presented come to bloom before us due to Frayn's superb ability to capture character on the run, as it were. The play is funny, sad, extremely real and finally as moving as it is precise. The manner in which the author depicts the business world is a light year away from David Mamet: real but not cynical, spotlighting each character's silliness and/or hypocrisy but with a sad affection for them all. Dench plays the company head's secretary, who gives him a crash course in Buddhism plus a heap of honest affection. She is simply splendid in this equally splendid play.

Absolute Hell (1991) was broadcast here in the US on television in the 90s. It is a very funny look at a down-scale, Bohemian night club in post WWII Britain, run by Christine Foskett (Dench) and visited by various lost souls, among whom is the always fine Bill Nighy. (Dench later reprised her role in a legitimate version in London's West End, winning an Olivier Award for her trouble.) She's raucous, funny, over the top, and when the moment calls for it, she can bring us to tears. In a bonus feature on the disc, Dench does an interview and sings a terrific version of "Send in the Clowns" from Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

If you're a fan of Ibsen's Ghosts, you will not want to miss this 1981 production in which Dench plays Mrs. Alving, with assist from Michael Gambon as Pastor Manders, a very young Kenneth Branagh as Oswald, Natasha Richardson as Regina and Freddie Jones as Engstrand. If this sounds like an ideal cast, it is. As directed by Elijah Moshinsky and performed impeccably, the play comes off as understated (a rarity for this work) and is all the more chilling and moving because of this. A bonus feature on this disc is a radio version of David Hare's play "Amy's View."

And finally, we have the 70-minute Going Gently from 1981 and Can You Hear Me Thinking? (87 minutes, 1990). The former has two elderly men, played by Fulton MacKay and Norman Wisdom, undergoing cancer treatment in a hospice, in which Ms Dench acts as their nurse. In the latter, the actress stars with her real-life, now-deceased husband Michael Williams, as a married couple dealing with the onset of schizophrenia in their teenage son. Bonus features include two radio plays: With Great Pleasure and Are You Still Awake?

The collection contains even more extras than I have time to mention. In terms of bang-for-the-buck and number of hours of entertainment, it's hard to quibble with all that is compiled here. And while the quality is up and down, I can't imagine that any fan of the formidable Dame Judi will be able to resist dipping into the array.

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Posted by cphillips at June 12, 2008 11:52 AM
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