Birthday Binge Watch: Five Judi Dench Performances You Can Stream Online

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Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer in "As Time Goes By". (Photo: BBC)
December 2014 holds an important milestone for fans of British drama everywhere as the great Dame Judi Dench celebrates her 80th birthday (December 9).

Dench, a stunningly talented actress who has served as a gateway drug of sorts for several generations of Anglophiles, is pretty much universally beloved, having wracked up untold numbers of BAFTAs, Tonys, Olivier Awards, Golden Globes and even an Oscar for her work and a massive global fanbase obsessed with her general sass and perfection. And, now that she’s officially an octogenarian, she’s even more awesome than ever, with upcoming roles in sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the second round of Hollow Crown films, in which she’ll play Cecily, the Duchess of York (i.e. Richard III’s – or in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’smom.)

So, to celebrate her special day, here are five classic Dench performances that you can stream online right now.

As Time Goes By.  Did you know Judi Dench is amazing at comedy? Given her penchant for serious dramas, Shakepeare and various levels of period dress, this information might have escaped you, but luckily the romantic sitcom As Time Goes By exists, so you can right that misconception quickly.

A Britcom staple on PBS stations around the country for many years, As Time Goes By originally aired on BBC One from 1992 to 2002, with a reunion special thrown in to wrap it all up in 2005. It starred Dench alongside Geoffrey Palmer, and documented the relationship between two former lovers who meet unexpectedly after not having been in contact for 30 years. Think sort of like Last Tango in Halifax but without the social media element or the tremendously melodramatic family members. Or, rather, yes to the melodramatic family members, I suppose, but it’s played for laughs rather than angst.

And while some elements of the show may seem a bit dated now, it’s still very, very funny and Dench is fantastic in it. 

As Time Goes By Judi Dench

You can stream all nine seasons via Amazon Prime

Cranford.  Dench stars alongside such acting luminaries as Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie, Francesca Annis, Philip Glenister, Michael Gambon and Jim Carter in this rather heartwarming period drama that explores the small absurdities and major tragedies that befall the quirky residents of a small village Cranford.

Written by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas, this is a lush, sweet and thoroughly charming period drama with colorful, fantastic characters. It’s wonderful. 

Cranford DVD Trailer

You can stream Cranford on Hulu Plus.

Her Majesty Mrs. Brown.  This 1997 drama follows the story of a bereaved Queen Victoria and her relationship with a Scottish servant named John Brown. Brown, who had been a trusted servant of the deceased Prince Albert, was summoned to court to help ease Queen Victoria’s pain over her beloved husband’s death. The public, press and several members of the Royal family come to resent their relationship and Brown’s perceived influence over the Queen. Drama ensues.           

Her Majesty Mrs. Brown stars Dench alongside Billy Connolly, Geoffrey Palmer, Antony Sher and Gerard Butler. Dench was nominated for Best Actress for her performance as Queen Victoria but did not win – a snub many felt led to her later Supporting Actress victory the next year for Shakespeare in Love.

Oh, and this movie is fantastic and I can’t recommend it enough if you haven’t seen it. Dench’s performance is wondrous, even by her work’s general high standards. 

Mrs Brown Original Trailer

You can stream Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown on Netflix.

Shakespeare in Love. This 1998 drama depicts an imaginary love affair involving William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps whilst the playwright was writing Romeo & Juliet. The film is packed with nods to history (many characters are based on actual people), lines from Shakespeare’s plays and tropes that would have been common in Elizabethan drama. It’s pretty adorable, on the whole, and loads of fun for anyone with a passing interest in English theater or history.

Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck and Geoffrey Rush star. Dench plays Queen Elizabeth II and is onscreen for roughly eight minutes in total. Nevertheless, she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance and is generally pretty incredible during every second of her brief appearances. The film itself went on to win six additional Oscars, including Best Picture.  

Shakespeare in Love Official Trailer #1 - Tom Wilkinson Movie (1998) HD

You can stream Shakespeare in Love on Netflix.

Skyfall. Skyfall is the twenty-third installment in the James Bond film franchise, and the third starring Daniel Craig as Bond. However, it marks Dench’s seventh turn as the mysterious “M”, Bond’s boss and head of MI-6.  Fun fact: Dench was the first woman to portray the famous Bond character, back in 1995’s Goldeneye, and her role was based on Dame Stella Rimington, the real-life head of MI-5 between 1992 and 1996.

Dench’s M was the only character to carry over from the Brosnan to the Craig Bond years, and as Skyfall marks her final Bond outing, it feels a bit like the end of an era. But she goes out on a great note, getting to be even more awesome than usual in what is her biggest role within the franchise yet.  Ben Whishaw, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and more also star. 

SKYFALL - Official Trailer

You can stream Skyfall on Netflix.

Sadly my limits of “five films” and “that you can watch online” left out a great deal of Dame Judi’s other phenomenal performances – Philomena, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Notes on a Scandal, Pride and Prejudice or Ladies in Lavender, to name just a few of her more recent efforts – so perhaps we’ll have to revisit her career again for our British Actors You Should Know series at some point. (Like that’s a hardship, though. I mean, oh, no, just force me to talk about Judi Dench films some more, noooo..)

At any rather, I expect Dench is something of a gateway drug for people who get into British film and theater – she’s so awesome it’s hard not to. May she keep enthralling us all with her acting for many years to come.

What’s your favorite Judi Dench film?