Crix praise small and queen-sized roles

'Chocolat' brings Dench's third Oscar nom

Ask three critics about Miramax’s “Chocolat” and you’ll probably get three different opinions. When it comes to co-star and Oscar winner Judi Dench, however, everyone is on the same page.

“She’s the thinking man’s tough, old broad,” says Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman. “There’s something earthier and sassier about her than other actresses. Her characters are forceful, but they also possess a radiance.”

Indeed, from Bond to the Bard, Queen Elizabeth to Queen Victoria, Dench has brought to her many roles a commanding elegance that has led to a career full of high-notes on television, the bigscreen and the boards.

Oscar nommed for a third time this year for her role as a free-thinking landlady in Lasse Hallstrom’s film — pic is up for five nods — Dench is suddenly becoming an Academy regular. First nominated for “Mrs. Brown” (1997), she won the supporting actress hardware for John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love” (1998).

And now that ShoWest is honoring her with a supporting actress honor, the org seems to be playing catch-up. The York, English-born thesp has two Oliviers (“Absolute Hell,” “A Little Night Music”), a Tony (“Amy’s View”), a Golden Globe (“The Last of the Blonde Bombshells”), a British ACE award (“Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill”) and a mantle full of BAFTAs.

Dench also remains a TV fave, co-starring in PBS reruns across the country of “As Time Goes By.”

But bless those 007 blockbusters: It’s Dench’s role as M in “GoldenEye,” “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “The World Is Not Enough,” despite the cameolike size and scope, that seems to grab the attention of most American critics.

“She adds tremendous class to every project in which she stars,” says Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas. “She’s realistic and down to earth, but she’s also a master when it comes to nuance. That’s exactly what she did with her James Bond (collection). It’s a small part that anyone could have played, but she brought something to it that made it memorable.”

From legit beginnings

Dench is part of a tradition of acclaimed actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave, Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith, who have “made the leap” in a big way.

Already a marquee name in England from her performances with the Royal Shakespeare Co. and the National Theatre, Dench has been wowing theatergoers ever since she took the stage for the first time as Ophelia in a 1957 Old Vic production of “Hamlet.” From her West End turn as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” (1968) to her Tony-winning perf in David Hare’s “Amy’s View” (1998), Dench is a legit legend.

But American auds discovered her late — very late — in her ca-reer, and that path to fame has impressed U.S. critics as often as it has puzzled them.

“A lot of people still think her recent success is her only success,” says Dallas Morning News pop culture critic Tom Maurstad. “She’s been a giant onstage for years, but she’ll forever be known Stateside for what she did on film.

“That says more about us than it does about her, and it’s a phe-nomenon that rarely happens today.”

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