1. Philomena (2013)

IMDB Rating: 7.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 90%

Storyline: Based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, this movie tells the true story of Philomena Lee’s 50-year search for her forcibly adopted son and Sixsmith’s efforts to help her. Judi Dench plays Philomena, an Irish woman searching for her child, who discovers that he was sold to an American family.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Dench’s performance in this movie is grippingly heart-rending. She brings the character of Philomena to life, illuminating her strength, determination, and faith amidst unimaginable personal tragedy. The love of a mother and the anguish of being separated from her child are beautifully portrayed by Dench, making the audience feel every aspect of her character’s pain and perseverance.

In this film, Dench manages to gracefully walk the tightrope between tragedy and comedy, providing moments of relatability and levity amidst a profoundly moving narrative. Her interpretation of Philomena showcases her extraordinary ability to portray complex emotional dynamics in a profoundly realistic manner. The film’s critical acclaim and popularity among audiences is, in large part, a testament to Dench’s outstanding performance.

2. Notes on a Scandal (2006)

IMDB Rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 87%

Storyline: Judi Dench portrays Barbara Covett, a stern teacher with a secret loneliness who is drawn towards her new colleague, Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), at St. George’s school in London. When Barbara uncovers Sheba’s affair with a student, the two women’s lives become forever intertwined as dark secrets and jealousy take center stage.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Dench’s portrayal of Covett is nothing short of chilling. Her calculated manipulation, quiet desperation, and seething envy are impeccably portrayed, presenting a nuanced study of a complex character. Dench’s performance is so compelling that the audience finds themselves both repulsed and fascinated by her character.

In this film, Dench’s skill as an actress is showcased in the sheer power of her performance. Her acting is natural and effortless, bearing testimony to her prowess and experience in the world of theater. Despite her character’s outward cold appearance, Dench succeeds in subtly revealing the layers of vulnerability within, making this an unforgettable role in her distinguished career.

3. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

IMDB Rating: 7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 92%

Storyline: Set in the late 16th century, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ dramatizes an imaginary love affair of William Shakespeare (played by Joseph Fiennes) with Viola de Lesseps (a character played by Gwyneth Paltrow), while he was writing the play “Romeo and Juliet”. Dench captivated the audience in her role as Queen Elizabeth I, giving an intense and powerful portrayal of the monarch.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Despite being on-screen for just eight minutes, Dench’s performance is so impactful that it won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She expertly brings to life Queen Elizabeth’s dignified and imposing demeanor, showing her power and influence with a few, carefully measured scenes.

Her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth is filled with strength, charisma, and remarkable nuance. Every word she speaks resonates with authority and determination, convincingly creating an unforgettable stalwart character. The film’s success is largely attributable to Dench’s compelling performance, which leaves a lasting impression, despite her limited screen time.

4. Skyfall (2012)

IMDB Rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 92%

Storyline: Skyfall is the 23rd James Bond film, produced by Eon Productions, with Daniel Craig playing the leading role of James Bond for the third time. After an operation in Istanbul ends in disaster, Bond is missing, presumed dead, and the identities of every active undercover MI6 agent are leaked onto the internet. Dench plays M, Bond’s superior and the head of the British Secret Service.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Skyfall remains a standout amongst Bond films, remembered particularly for Dench’s deeply affecting portrayal of M. Faced with a crisis that may destroy MI6, Judi Dench brings vulnerability and hard determination to her role as M. This marks her seventh appearance in the Bond films, and arguably her finest.

In this film, Dench’s M is more than just a boss to Bond, she is a maternal figure, a mentor, and a woman of iron will caught in formidable circumstances. She brings gravitas, sternness, compassion, and a strong dynamic with Daniel Craig. It is this powerful portrayal that propelled her character to the heart of the narrative, a unique achievement for a Bond movie. Skyfall gave Dench the opportunity to explore the depths of M’s character unlike ever before and her incredible performance remains pivotal to the film’s resounding success.

5. Mrs. Brown (1997)

IMDB Rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 92%

Storyline: ‘Mrs. Brown’ is a 1997 British drama film that tells the story of Queen Victoria (played by Dench) and her relationship with a Scottish servant, John Brown (played by Billy Connolly), which caused a scandal in its time. In mourning for her recently deceased husband Prince Albert, Queen Victoria finds solace in the companionship of John Brown, instigating a controversial friendship that the household and inner circle tried to suppress.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Judi Dench’s portrayal of Queen Victoria earned her a nomination for the Academy Awards. She presents the Queen as a deeply grieving widow and as a formidable ruler with equal finesse. Dench succeeds in capturing the complexity of Victoria’s relationship with Brown, navigating a fine line between friendship and possible romance with convincing subtlety.

Dench’s performance is not only convincing but also highly emotionally charged. Her brilliant portrayal of a mourning monarch who finds an unlikely companion in Brown showcases Dench’s undeniable talent for bringing nuance and complexity to her characters. It is a standout performance in an illustrious career, embodying a blend of strength, vulnerability, and resilience that is truly captivating to watch.

6. Iris (2001)

IMDB Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 79%

Storyline: ‘Iris’ is a biography drama movie about the life of Iris Murdoch, the famous British novelist and philosopher. The movie depicts the recurring romance and marriage between Iris (played by Dench) and her husband John Bayley (played by Jim Broadbent). The film switches between the early years of their relationship and the later years where Iris is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Dench delivers a completely absorbing performance as the aging Iris Murdoch. She captures the tragic challenges of Alzheimer’s with tremendous sensitivity, offering an insight into the anguish and confusion brought by the disease. Her portrayal of Iris truthfully illuminates the heartbreaking journey of a brilliant mind gradually losing her grip on reality, earning her an Academy Award nomination.

Dench’s portrayal of Iris, particularly in the stages of her Alzheimer’s disease, is marked by a profound sense of authenticity. She handles a difficult subject with great finesse, presenting Iris’s decline with all its monstrosity and yet, never losing sight of her character’s dignity and inherent strength. This moving, blisteringly honest portrayal of dementia is among the most incredible performances in Dench’s career.

7. Casino Royale (2006)

IMDB Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 95%

Storyline: ‘Casino Royale’ introduces Daniel Craig as James Bond. Charming and more dangerous than ever, Bond’s mission takes him to a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale, Montenegro. Judi Dench returns as M, the head of MI6, who assigns this mission to the new 007 agent, testing his loyalty and resolve.

Why it’s a Major Performance: In Casino Royale, Dench’s return as M offers more depth and texture to her character. Marking the first time a woman has played M, Dench portrays a tough, witty, and astute spy chief who drives Bond’s character development. As M, she steers Bond’s actions with her ceaseless pragmatism and unyielding authority, providing essential balance to the impulsive 007.

Dench’s powerful screen presence and ability to instill humor, strength, and a touch of vulnerability make her performance as M single-handedly dynamic and memorable in Casino Royale. Her fascinating portrayal of M set a new template for the character and contributed persuasively to the film’s highly positive reception. Despite playing a supporting role, Dench steals the show with her monumental performance, setting a high benchmark for future Bond films to follow.

8. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

IMDB Rating: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 78%

Storyline: ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ follows a group of British retirees who move to India, lured by the newly restored Marigold Hotel promising a luxurious retirement. The film features a fantastic ensemble cast, and Judi Dench stands out as Evelyn Greenslade, a recently widowed woman seeking a fresh start.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Dench’s portrayal of Evelyn is endearing, relatable, and full of life. As an older woman navigating her way through personal loss while exploring a completely different culture, Dench brings authenticity to Evelyn’s journey. Her performance as the resilient and optimistic Evelyn garnered positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.

In this film, Dench’s performance manages to evoke a sense of empathy towards Evelyn’s courageous journey. The courage to step out of her comfort zone after her husband’s death and start anew in a foreign country is beautifully portrayed by Dench. She brings out the hope and determination of her character, engaging the audience from the start to the end, showcasing the versatility of her talent and experience.

9. Chocolat (2000)

IMDB Rating: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 62%

Storyline: Set in a tranquil French village, ‘Chocolat’ tells the story of a young mother, Vianne (played by Juliette Binoche), who opens up a chocolate shop, which stirs up controversy. Judi Dench plays Armande, a cranky old woman with diabetes, who becomes one of Vianne’s first customers and friends.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Dench’s performance in this film is witty, bold, and moving. As Armande, she is delightfully caustic and full of life. Her relationship with her overly religious daughter and her friendship with Vianne are presented with a warm, humorous touch that only Dench could pull off. This earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Her portrayal of Armande showcases Dench’s ability to imbue her characters with depth and complexity. Despite her character’s grumpy exterior, Dench brings out Armande’s free-spirited nature with great charm and wit. This performance is a testament to the range of her talent, proving she can play any character with finesse and depth.

10. Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)

IMDB Rating: 7.0/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 68%

Storyline: ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’ is a period drama set in the 1930s. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Henderson (played by Dench) buys an old theater and turns it into the Windmill, a performance hall featuring nude revues. She hires Vivian Van Damm (played by Bob Hoskins) to run the theater, causing an uproar in the industry and society.

Why it’s a Major Performance: Judi Dench’s portrayal of the sassy, bold, and eccentric Mrs. Henderson is simply delightful. Her character’s audacity in challenging societal norms and censorship in the 30s is portrayed brilliantly. Dench’s impressive display of spirit, resilience, and charm earned her a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards for this role.

Dench’s performance shines in the amusing banter and chemistry with Bob Hoskins and the tender moments of self-reflection. Dench brings an element of humor, vulnerability, and grit to the character of Mrs. Henderson making it another memorable portrayal in her extensive and esteemed filmography. The combination of wit, depth, and charisma that Judi Dench brings to the role is testament to her legendary status in the acting world.