How many dreary dramas does it take to break Judge Kristin Munson? Five, as it turns out.
There's nothing like a Dame.
Judi Dench has spent more than 40 years on stage and screen, but it's only in the past decade that she's hit it big in America. She's moved from PBS standby to scoring Oscars and bossing James Bond, but the BBC opts for quantity over quality with this backhanded tribute collection.
Facts of the Case
Eight discs. Nine British dramas. Infinite frustration.
The Cherry Orchard (1962 and 1981): In Anton Chekhov's glacially paced tragi-comedy, a wealthy but clueless family is about to lose the family home to their mounting debts. In one version, Dench plays the innocent daughter; in the other, the worldly mother.
Talking to a Stranger (1966): Four 90-minute dramas tell the story of one pivotal weekend from the perspectives of each member of a highly dysfunctional family. Dench won a BAFTA for her role as the high-strung daughter.
Keep an Eye on Amelie (1973): Dench stars as a sprightly courtesan who agrees to pose as fiancee of her lover's best friend so he can win his inheritance. Being a French farce, everything spirals out of control.
Going Gently (1981): A drama about cancer and the physical and emotional toll it takes. It's about as much fun as it sounds.
Ghosts (1987): An all-star cast joins Judi for the controversial Henrik Ibsen play about family secrets.
Make and Break (1987): Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great and Small) is a work-obsessed salesman who drives his staff crazy during a convention.
Absolute Hell (1991): World War II is finally over, and the colorful characters at a London club who are used to living every day like it's their last, have to learn to cope with life after wartime. Although written in 1951, it is brimming with salty language and alternative sexualities.
Can You Hear Me Thinking? (1990): Going Gently, but with schizophrenia.
I guess I can't say that I'm a fan of Judi Dench. Sure, As Time Goes By is a show I never get tired of, and I tuned in to Angelina Ballerina when I learned she and her daughter voiced characters, but this set nearly broke me as a reviewer. Twenty hours of mostly unavailable British drama should have put me over the moon, but with every disc the collection became a bigger chore. After several headaches and many unscheduled naps, there were times I couldn't bear to put another DVD into the player.
This set has too much stuff. Let me rephrase that: this set has too much stuff that doesn't need to be here. Several movies seem to be chosen for their run times rather than their relevance. Make and Break is good, but the actress is non-existent until the second hour. That's more than can be said of Going Gently, a film so relentlessly depressing that Dench can only stand to be in it for a few minutes at a time, fifteen in all. Then there's the pointless inclusion of two productions of The Cherry Orchard.
Chekhov is an acquired taste, and his satire about indecisive aristos suffers because of the large cast and agonizing conversation. The '60s adaptation performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company squeaks by on talent: with Dench treading the boards alongside John Gielgud, Ian Holm, and Peggy Ashcroft, who cares about the battered print? Compared to that, the 1981 version is muted in every way, from the emotion, to the sets, to the muddled sound. The only reason to check out the newer edition is to compare Dench's performances.
There are only five hours of comedy included, an odd choice considering the awards she won for her sitcom and musical work, and it's not nearly enough to overcome the heavy melodramatic load of disease dramas and family strife. Talking to a Stranger alone is six hours. The shrill mini-series keeps hinting that the constant bickering is leading up to a big reveal about the reason for the family animosity and the odd death of a major character, but when it finally got there, all I could say was, "That's it?"
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Thankfully, the set isn't a total loss. The extras and one or two of the TV movies manage to be entertaining and on-topic.
Absolute Hell is an outrageous black comedy with a cast led by the always fantastic Bill Nighy (State of Play). Half the fun is seeing a slew of familiar faces kick up their heels as lesbians, party-girls, drunks, and drag queens, and then watching them become human as the real world closes in. Dench is a hoot as the drunken club owner, Christine.
Ghosts is the best drama on the disc thanks to the combination of Ibsen's prose and the all-star cast. Peppered with sex, lies, and hints of syphilis, the story is sordid and compelling. Unlike Chekhov, Ibsen never wastes a line; each word cuts down to the bone. The five fully realized characters are played by Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Henstridge, and Freddie Jones.
Despite the age of the dramas, most of them are in decent shape, although the UK uses a murkier quality of film, and the only production with sound troubles is the 1981 edition of The Cherry Orchard. Included as extras are two radio plays, an extended interview, and a performance of "Send in the Clowns" from a UK chat show, but the two best pieces are "With Great Pleasure" and Favorite Things. Both show a more natural Judi Dench, a person who's much more interesting outside of professional interviews. "With Great Pleasure" is a radio program where Dench and husband Michael Williams recite some of their favorite poems and literary excerpts, and in Favorite Things, a camera crew visits the family home while the actress prattles on about stuff she likes. It sounds narcissistic, but it's neat to get a peek inside her house and meet the actress as a real person who collects teddy bears and still has the dollhouse her father made her.
The Judi Dench Collection aims for variety and winds up being overstuffed. It's so eager to showcase the Dame in all types of roles and all styles of drama that is doesn't stop to gauge the quality of the material. It's also overloaded with unpleasant, excruciatingly-paced TV movies that would never see the light of day if Dench weren't in them. Of the nine programs the collection offers, I enjoyed three and would rewatch only Ghosts and Absolute Hell and Ghosts was already available on DVD.
This one's for the hardest of hardcore fans.
Guilty. BBC is sentenced to find itself a better editor.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "Amy's View" Radio Play
• IMDb: The Cherry Orchard (1962)
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