51. Run for Your Wife (2012)
This is the bottom of the heap. Scrape the barrel long enough and you will find this under the barrel, somewhere near the centre of the Earth. Dench has a baffling cameo as a bag lady in this world-historically terrible and unfunny farce by Ray Cooney.
50. Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)
What a toe-curler. Dench is tiresome in this awful film playing the real-life Laura Henderson, who bought the Windmill theatre in Soho, London, in the 1940s, and turned it into a saucy revue. She has supposedly adorable patrician mannerisms.
49. The Shipping News (2001)
Sad to say, there is something gratingly hammy about Dench’s performance as Kevin Spacey’s cranky great-aunt. Best forgotten.
48. The Third Secret (1964)
Dench’s first film role was this honest contribution to a thriller directed by the legendary Ealing director Charles Crichton. She is the slightly supercilious, posh assistant to an art gallery owner played by Richard Attenborough.
47. A Study in Terror (1965)
John Neville’s Sherlock Holmes goes on the hunt for Jack the Ripper. Dench has the workaday role of Sally, the niece of Dr Murray (Anthony Quayle) who runs a charitable hostel for down-and-out people.
46. Dead Cert (1974)
Dench does her professional best in this Dick Francis murder mystery. A racehorse owner investigates the suspicious death of his friend. But he was having an affair with the dead man’s wife – now widow – Laura, played by Dench.
45. Die Another Day (2002)
A notoriously ropey Bond (the one with the invisible car). Dench’s M demands to know why Bond didn’t use his suicide pill, when he was captured by the North Koreans. That says it all.
44. He Who Rides a Tiger (1965)
Another cult British kitchen-sinker for devotees of the digital channel Talking Pictures. Dench is the young, pretty but poor girl that Tom Bell’s cynical burglar comes to love – but not enough to mend his ways.
43. Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Dench plays Princess Dragomiroff with a wacky Ryussian accyent in the classic Agatha Christie mystery.
42. Tulip Fever (2017)
We are in the realms of silliness here. Dench plays a pipe-smoking abbess.
41. Chocolat (2000)
Juliette Binoche’s spirited and supportive landlady is played by Dench with vigour and poise: she lends some grit to a flabby film.
40. Spectre (2015)
A tiny flashback cameo.
39. Luther (1974)
Dench is Martin Luther’s wife Katherine, or Katie, in this version of John Osborne’s play. She is featured towards the end of the film in a submissive domestic role. She does a professional job, but there’s little for her to get her teeth into.
38. The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
A bit of an under-par Dench, this: her Lady Bracknell is counterintuitively subdued, and the “A handbag?” line comes out as more of a whisper.
37. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
Dench takes the paycheque in this nothing-to-write-home-about performance as a society lady.
36. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Dench phones in her portrayal of Miss Esmerelda Avocet, the headteacher of a second institution for peculiar children in Tim Burton’s exotic fantasy.
35. Nine (2009)
Dench plays the sharp-tongued confidante of Daniel Day-Lewis’s anguished film director in this ropey film, inspired by Fellini’s 8½.
34. Hamlet (1996)
An intriguing, tiny cameo. Dench is one of the stage actors, playing the Trojan queen Hecuba, seen in flashback and the subject of Hamlet’s memorably awestruck description of actors who can make themselves cry about imaginary people and situations: “What’s Hecuba to him?”
33. Quantum of Solace (2008)
This was a pretty low-octane James Bond film, and there’s little Dench’s M can do to help.
32. The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Dench gives what may be her most surreal screen performance in the Vin Diesel sci-fi action thriller, playing Aereon, someone who can only be described as an ectoplasmic wise-woman.
31. The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Dench’s M is focused, professional and serious.
30. Henry V (1989)
Dench brings her inimitable confidence and expertise to the role of Mistress Quickly in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, especially in her performance of the “a-babbled of green fields” speech describing Falstaff’s death.
29. Casino Royale (2006)
Dench’s spy chief is splendidly icy, disapproving and yet caring with 007, played for the first time by Daniel Craig.
28. Red Joan (2018)
Frustrating. This could have been a great Dench role, playing the elderly British woman arrested for spying for Russia during the cold war. There is not enough for her to do, but it isn’t bad.
27. Jack & Sarah (1995)
Richard E Grant is Jack, the man stricken with grief when his wife dies in childbirth. Dench plays Jack’s mother opposite his mother-in-law – Eileen Atkins.
26. Rage (2009)
A sour, dyspeptic cameo as a critic in Sally Potter’s experimental smartphone-sized satire of the fashion world.
25. Wetherby (1985)
An ensemble player in this fascinating, underappreciated 1980s Thatcher-era political drama from David Hare. She plays Marcia, a friend of Vanessa Redgrave’s troubled schoolteacher.
24. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)
This was Dench’s first outing as the slightly sad older lady in this gentle, but underpowered Saga holiday of a movie. She was a little underused.
23. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
The supporting role that she was born to play: the well-born Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the Jane Austen classic, upon whose approval and patronage so much depends. Dench puts pep and sinew into the part.
22. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Back as the spy chief M, drolly suggesting to 007 he should exploit his former sexual relationship with the woman who is now married to the Murdochesque media mogul villain, played by Jonathan Pryce.
21. J Edgar (2011)
It’s fun to imagine Dench taking direction from Clint Eastwood; here is another “mother” role for her. She plays the formidable and homophobic materfamilias to FBI chief J Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), and the film implies she may be the key to his ambiguous sexual identity. Dench’s Mrs Hoover loathes men who are “daffodils”.
20. 84, Charing Cross Road (1987)
Anthony Hopkins’s bookshop owner Frank Doel has his epistolary affaire de coeur with Anne Bancroft’s Helene Hanff – and Dench quietly does wonders with the small and thankless role of Frank’s wife, Nora (absent from the stage version).
19. Jane Eyre (2011)
Dench demonstrates her subtlety and technique in the small role of housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, doing more with less, and delicately suggesting with gestures and glances that things are very much amiss with Mr Rochester, played by Michael Fassbender.
18. Tea With Mussolini (1999)
Dench has fun in Franco Zeffirelli’s quasi-autobiographical film with the role of Arabella, the eccentric would-be artist among the expatriate English ladies in 1935 Italy. She says reverently to the young boy who finds himself among them: “I have warmed both hands before the fires of Michelangelo and Botticelli!”
17. GoldenEye (1995)
This was the film in which she took over the role of M – it was also Pierce Brosnan’s first time. She revs up the proceedings by chiding Bond for being a sexist throwback. “You don’t like me, do you, Bond? Good! Because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war …”
16. The Second Best Marigold Hotel (2015)
Here is the interestingly superior sequel to the first Werther’s Original-type film about British retirees who head to India for the cheaper prices and the better quality of life. She is the melancholy widow with whom roguish Bill Nighy is now in love. A nice turn.
15. My Week With Marilyn (2011)
In the notably tense atmosphere surrounding the 50s romp The Prince and the Showgirl, Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh) found he had no chemistry with Marilyn Monroe (played by Michelle Williams). Dench is terrific as Sybil Thorndike, who sides with Monroe against Olivier, telling him not to be such a bully.
14. A Room With a View (1985)
Dench is Eleanor Lavish in the EM Forster adaptation; the opinionated novelist whom Lucy meets in the Florence pensione. She inspires Charlotte (Maggie Smith) to take a bolder and more passionate view of life and young love.
13. Victoria & Abdul (2017)
An oddity, perhaps: essentially a sequel to Mrs Brown (see below), but a tremendously juicy role nonetheless, and a unique second bite at the cherry. She plays the much older Queen Victoria, now in a similar relationship with a Muslim manservant, Abdul Karim.
12. All Is True (2018)
There was an age-disparity between Dench’s Anne Hathaway and Kenneth Branagh’s Bard in this movie about Shakespeare’s old age, but Dench shines as a woman who has had to suppress terrible, destructive emotions all her life.
11. Ladies in Lavender (2004)
Here is the best of her spinsterish roles. She is Ursula, the sister of the widowed Janet (played by Maggie Smith) in 1930s Cornwall, who are astonished when a mysterious foreigner, played by Daniel Brühl, washes up on the beach. Ursula is unmarried, almost certainly a virgin, and gets an alarming crush on this young man.
10. Nothing Like a Dame (2018)
A glorious documentary by Roger Michell, which brings her together with Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright for hilarious, insightful, utterly unsentimental conversation about their acting craft. Dench’s anecdotes about being patronised by medical staff are showstoppers.
9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968)
Classic blue-chip Dench. This is a filmed version of the 1960s RSC production of the Shakespeare play directed by Peter Hall. Dench plays Titania naked, with her modesty covered with a long wig. She is sprightly, impish, mischievous.
8. A Handful of Dust (1988)
Dench is as mean and sharp as a carpet tack in this version of the Evelyn Waugh novel: she is the grasping mother of John Beaver, the slippery social climber who has an affair with Kristin Scott Thomas’s Brenda Last. It is this Mrs Beaver who is the driving force for John’s greedy demand for money in the divorce settlement.
7. Four in the Morning (1965)
Dench got her best newcomer Bafta for this breakthrough performance in a cult Brit kitchen-sink classic, one for fans of the Talking Pictures digital channel. She plays the deeply unhappy young mother, driven to despair by a crying baby and with a husband who would rather stay out all night.
6. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Dench won her Oscar for this small role as Queen Elizabeth I, the white-faced Gloriana who is a quasi-goddess. With telepathic ease, she senses that Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) has had an affair with Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare. She crisply says to Colin Firth, playing Viola’s thin-lipped fiance, Wessex: “You’re a lordly fool! She’s been plucked since I saw her last, and not by you. It takes a woman to know it.”
5. Skyfall (2012)
This is one of Dench’s most satisfying, and unexpected, performances. Having played James Bond’s spy chief M a number of times, this character and her portrayal suddenly flowers in this film. She is now the Bond girl who means most to him, and their relationship has a mother/son intimacy and intensity.
4. Iris (2001)
Dench plays the ageing novelist Iris Murdoch, opposite Jim Broadbent as her husband, the critic John Bayley. (Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville play the couple in their younger years.) Dench heart-rendingly shows Murdoch’s horror as she realises she is descending into dementia.
3. Mrs Brown (1997)
This is the big performance that turned her into a Hollywood player. She is the grief-stricken Queen Victoria, devastated by Albert’s death, but coaxed back to life by the fearless honesty of her Balmoral ghillie, John Brown, played by Billy Connolly. Together, they begin a new relationship which is – a friendship? An affair? A tremendously enjoyable royal turn.
2. Philomena (2013)
Dench is on stellar form in this movie inspired by real life – tough, funny, heartbreaking. She is in an odd-couple partnership with co-star Steve Coogan, playing the BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith; Dench owns the screen as the determined Irishwoman Philomena Lee on a mission to find out what happened to the baby boy taken away from her as an unwed mother in the 1950s.
1. Notes on a Scandal (2006)
This is Dench’s finest hour on screen. She is quite barnstormingly great as the sinister villain in this Highsmithian tale, adapted from the Zoë Heller novel. She plays Barbara, a grumpy teacher nearing retirement who conceives a fascination with a beautiful younger colleague Sheba played by Cate Blanchett. It’s a toxic mix of repressed desire and social envy. The older woman then discovers the means to blackmail her into submission. Dench’s performance is magnificent, especially her toe-curlingly inappropriate outfit and behaviour when she turns up for lunch at Sheba’s house, having misjudged how informal it was supposed to be. Dark, unsettling, pathetic, brilliant.