Revered Dench and Smith Take an Ordinary Turn

Judy Dench and Maggie Smith co-star in the film Ladies in Lavender. Set on Britain's Cornwall coast just before World War II, the movie is the bittersweet story of two aging sisters whose lives are changed when a young stranger washes ashore near their home.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

There are two very good reasons to see the film "Ladies in Lavender": Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Now that's not to say the movie doesn't have other virtues. Set amid the natural splendor of Britain's Cornwall coast just before World War II, "The Ladies in Lavender" recaptures the era in loving detail. But Dench and Smith, two of Britain's greatest actresses, take ownership of the film as two aging sisters whose lives are changed by an unexpected event. NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with Smith and Dench about the film, their careers and their lifelong friendship.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Back in the late 1950s, long before the queen honored them with the title dame, before they became icons of the British stage and screen and winners of virtually every acting award available, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were two young actresses sharing a dressing room at the Old Vic Theatre in London.

Dame JUDI DENCH (Actress): I remember we laughed a great deal.

Dame MAGGIE SMITH (Actress): Oh, we laughed all the time.

Dame JUDI: We did laugh.

Dame MAGGIE: It was total hysteria, in a way.

Dame JUDI: Yes, yes, it was. Fright mixed with hysteria.

NEARY: Dench and Smith went their separate ways after that, building extraordinary careers and creating unforgettable characters. It wasn't until 1985 that the two worked together again, this time in the Merchant-Ivory film "A Room with a View." Smith played a nervous chaperone on a trip to Italy; Dench a nosey, gossipy writer.

(Soundbite of "A Room with a View")

Dame JUDI: (As Eleanor Lavish): One has always to be open, wide open. I think Ms. Lucy is.

Dame MAGGIE: (As Charlotte Bartlett) Open to what, Ms. Lavish?

Dame JUDI: (As Ms. Lavish) The physical sensation. I will let you into a secret, Ms. Bartlett. I have my eye on your cousin, Ms. Lucy Honeychurch.

Dame MAGGIE: (As Ms. Bartlett) Oh, for a character in your novel, Ms. Lavish?

Dame JUDI: (As Ms. Lavish) The young English girl transfigured by Italy. And why should she not be transfigured? It happened to the Goths.

NEARY: The two renewed their friendship making that film and have remained close since. Their professional lives began intersecting, as well. They both appeared in Franco Zeffirelli's "Tea with Mussolini," and were starring in the David Hare play "The Breath of Life" when they were offered the parts in "Ladies in Lavender." Dench and Smith say they jumped at the chance because they're always eager for an opportunity to work with each other.

Dame MAGGIE: I thought--I think it's easier. It's a sort of shortcut to the whole thing.

Dame JUDI: You don't have to work on a process of acting with somebody who you know well. You know, there's--when it's somebody you don't know, the two of you have to get used to--Maggie and I don't have that anymore. And as Mag said, we have a shorthand, which is jolly useful.

NEARY: "Ladies in Lavender" begins and ends with a shot of Smith and Dench walking along a beach. They look like two old friends as they stroll along the rocky shoreline.

Dame MAGGIE: I'm glad it looked like that. I remember wobbling quite a lot on the travels. Didn't you, Judi?

Dame JUDI: Right. I do, too.

Dame MAGGIE: No. But it's what it felt like, too, because it became--I don't know. We became very attached to that beach, and it took you...

Dame JUDI: Mm-hmm. And the house and everything.

Dame MAGGIE: Yes.

Dame JUDI: It did seem like that ours.

Dame MAGGIE: It felt like we'd been there forever.

NEARY: The movie tells the bittersweet story of sisters Ursula and Janet, whose lives are shaken to the core when a handsome young stranger is washed ashore near their home. His arrival awakens a restless yearning in Ursula, played by Dench. Her barely concealed attraction to a man who could be her grandson both confuses and delights her, even as it strains her relationship with her sister, played by Smith.

(Soundbite of "Ladies in Lavender"; door opening)

Dame MAGGIE: (As Janet) You know, when Andrea is able to walk he's going to need some clothes.

Dame JUDI: (As Ursula) Yes, I know.

Dame MAGGIE: (As Janet) I thought I'd use some of the money Aunt Elizabeth left me to get him a new outfit.

Dame JUDI: (As Ursula) Why?

Dame MAGGIE: (As Janet) What do you mean, `Why?'

Dame JUDI: (As Ursula) Why not use our joint account?

Dame MAGGIE: (As Janet) What?

Dame JUDI: (As Ursula) Well, we're both responsible for him. And I was the one who saw him first.

Dame MAGGIE: (As Janet) Oh, don't be ridiculous.

NEARY: "Ladies in Lavender" is a quite film, where deep feelings are revealed in small gestures and glances. Dench plays Ursula with a heartbreaking stillness; her inner turmoil revealed in waves of longing and pain that flicker across her face. It seems remarkable that both Dench and Smith, steeped in the grander gestures of the stage, can accommodate their talents to the intimacy of a film like this. But, says Dench, there really isn't that much difference between acting on film and onstage.

Dame JUDI: You do it exactly the same way, but you just find a very small way of projecting that to the man sitting at the back of the upper circle. It's exactly the same process. It's just that you don't have to work so hard because the camera is very near you, so they pick up on your thoughts. So...

Dame MAGGIE: It's also more sensitive than the man in the back row.

Dame JUDI: Yes, yes.

Dame MAGGIE: Somehow...

Dame JUDI: Who's probably asleep by now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dame MAGGIE: Yes, absolutely. But it picks up such slight nuances, and thoughts it picks up. That's what's wonderful about it, that if you think a thing, it somehow manages to see that.

NEARY: Do you ever see yourself on film and are you ever surprised to see how much is revealed by your face as you're just standing there?

Dame MAGGIE: Oh, it's difficult to watch, you know.

Dame JUDI: Yes, a friend of mine said, `Don't go to see that film. You're face is three times the size of your house.' It's terrible.

Dame MAGGIE: It really is.

Dame JUDI: Enough to put you off, isn't it?

Dame MAGGIE: Yes, it's horrid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Smith says in film, directors have the final cut, but onstage an actor always has a second chance.

Dame MAGGIE: And that's the joy of the theater, that you get to do it another night and think, `Oh, jolly, we'll get that bit sorted out,' or, `I'll get this bit right.'

NEARY: And you don't have to watch yourself when you're acting onstage.

Dame MAGGIE: No, you don't.

NEARY: No, you don't.

Dame MAGGIE: You have--in your head, you can imagine that it's absolutely sensational because, of course, the film is a rude awakening.

NEARY: In recent years, Smith and Dench have taken on some parts that will ensure their legacy as icons of popular culture: Dench in the role of M in the most recent James Bond movies, and Smith as the shape-changing Professor McGonagall in the "Harry Potter" series.

(Soundbite of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets")

Dame MAGGIE: (As Professor McGonagall) What are you talking about, Mr. Weasley?

RUPERT GRINT: (As Ron Weasley) You're going to expel us, aren't you?

Dame MAGGIE: (As McGonagall) Not today, Mr. Weasley. But I must impress on both of you the seriousness of what you have done. I will be writing to your families tonight, and you will be both receive detention.

NEARY: Smith says the "Harry Potter" films have introduced her to a new generation of filmgoers.

Dame MAGGIE: There's some children who live in the little square that I live in and are convinced that I can turn into a cat. It's very difficult to slink in and out of my house with my shopping. I have to say, `No, I can't do it today. Maybe another day.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dame MAGGIE: But it's a whole new audience, which is nice--lovely.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dame JUDI: And exactly the same with Bond.

Dame MAGGIE: Yes.

Dame JUDI: Exactly the same; young mean between the ages of 10 and 12, really.

(Soundbite of "Die Another Day")

Dame JUDI: (As M) The only place you're going is our evaluation center in the Falklands, double-O status rescinded.

Mr. PIERCE BROSNAN: (As James Bond) Along with my freedom?

Dame JUDI: (As M) For as long as I deem necessary, yes. You're no use to anyone now.

I love the idea of playing something so extraordinarily different from the last part that, you know, it gives you a bit of a jolt.

Dame MAGGIE: Yeah.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dame MAGGIE: Wonderful.

NEARY: What would be something that would take you away from...

Dame JUDI: I want to do an aqua show.

Dame MAGGIE: Stop it! Esther Williams.

Dame JUDI: Yes. I once missed her--met Esther Williams.

Dame MAGGIE: So did I.

Dame JUDI: And my...

Dame MAGGIE: She was terrific.

Dame JUDI: ...married name is Williams, and I said, `Oh, well, you're my actual heroine,' because I remember it astutely. And I said, `I long for somebody to flood a theater and put the thea--people on the stage and I'll dive from the dress circle and I'll call myself Judi Williams.' But she didn't get the joke at all. I'd love that.

NEARY: Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Their new film "Ladies in Lavender" opened this weekend. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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