Although Judi Dench is perhaps best known to American film audiences for her Oscar-winning turn in “Shakespeare in Love” and for portraying “M” in the more recent James Bond movies, she is a live theater actress at heart. And it is through this sepia-toned lens that she tells the story of her life onstage in her new memoir, “And Furthermore.”
The book begins with Dench as a little girl in a very theatrical family, before cataloging every role she played on stage, TV and film over her more than 50-year career. It ends with her as a famous Dame of the British Empire, 76 years old and looking forward to many future roles.
Dench writes that “And Furthermore” should not be mistaken for an autobiography since John Miller covered much of her life in his 1998 biography, “Judi Dench: With a Crack in Her Voice.”
Whereas Miller’s book takes a look at acting within the larger context of her life, Dench writes that this new book aims to flesh out the gaps in the earlier biography. Unfortunately those gaps are filled with encyclopedic detail about every production Dench has worked on, accompanied by lists of names of the many actors she has worked with. As a result “And Furthermore” fails to hang its prop hat on anything resembling Dench’s inner life or emotions. For fans of Dench, this is disappointing, especially since the actress is famous for taking her audience on rich emotional journeys with her work.
For example, even though the book is dedicated to Dench’s daughter, Finty, and her grandson, Sammy, very little about Finty is mentioned aside from the fact that she was born. Sammy is not mentioned once, although he does appear in several of the wonderful photos that pepper the book and are drawn from Dench’s personal files.
From some of Dench’s musings it is easy to gather that these blank spots might be purposeful. Toward the end of the book she laments that there is no longer any mystery surrounding famous actors. “Why should the public know everything?” she writes. “The joy of the theater is not really going and knowing that somebody had terrible difficulty playing this part, or why they did it; it is to go and be told a story, the author’s story, through the best means possible.”
Only in this instance is “And Furthermore” Dench’s story, and she the author (through ghost writer John Miller). So although it’s nice to know that Dench played opposite such greats as John Gielgud, Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh, Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis, we don’t learn anything new about these great actors.
Instead we long for more personal anecdotes from Dench’s life, because when we get them they are really telling, often humorous, and quite lovely.
When Dench was a child, for example, she was sent to bed much earlier than her older brothers and she writes, “I remember so well going to bed and hearing them play cricket in the garden, and hearing all that life going on outside; I simply couldn’t bear it, and it’s still like that. I don’t like missing anything....”
Then there was the time when Dench was in her early 20s and a part of the famed Old Vic Company in London playing the role of Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.” Her parents attended every show and once when she cried out the line, “Where are my mother and father, Nurse?” her father called out from the stalls, “Here we are, darling, in Row H.”
Clearly her family was extremely close and quite unique. But in “And Furthermore” Dench dedicates two milquetoast paragraphs to her father’s death before she is off to Chapter 4, titled, “Exciting Times at Nottingham and Oxford.”
The death of her husband, the actor Michael Williams, from lung cancer is also given very little ink. (Although a good bit of detail is dished out about the pair’s popular television show, “A Fine Romance.”) Still, Dench does not come off as insensitive, you can tell that these sad events affected her deeply. But she doesn’t pause to reflect on paper.
There are glimpses of what the book could have been if Dench had chosen to focus on fewer details and instead looked intently at the really important events and anecdotes.
For example, she is irritated with modern audiences’ TV-induced restlessness; and hates all the “little red lights” that cellphones emit during a show even when “Definitely no photographs,” is printed in a program. The thought that audiences have changed since the late 1950s and grown to expect a completely different kind of entertainment is intriguing in and of itself.
The reader’s frustration of not being let into the great actresses’ life exists only because Dench — even hastily sketched — is such a charming, vivid and compelling person. We want more. In the end, however, we are given an actor’s mask.