Never underestimate a woman who can nab an Oscar with less than nine minutes of screen time. Judi Dench clinched 1998’s Best Supporting Actress statuette with her deliciously imperious take on Queen Liz in Shakespeare in Love. In Chocolat, Dame Dench, 66, turns in another nuanced performance as Armande Voizin, a stubborn landlady who forges a relationship with her grandson despite her estrangement from her daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss). ”The relationship between [the characters] was so interesting,” says Moss. ”[Caroline] ends up accepting [Armande] finally, which ends up freeing her spirit, but at a large price.”
From Dench’s first scene — in which she exudes a jaded crankiness while renting a storefront to Juliette Binoche’s chocolatier — to her touching last dance with her grandson, there are few cracks in Armande’s gruff facade; it’s in the briefest moments of vulnerability that Dench shows her character’s humanity. ”You always recognize a stage actor because they are so unspoiled in their approach to work,” says costar Lena Olin. ”She represents that kind of extremely heroic, talented group of actors that were brought up in the theater and just do the work with no fuss.”
Awards-season fuss is probably the last thing Dench wants, especially now: Having lost her husband of 30 years, actor Michael Williams, in December, the actress was not in L.A. to collect her Golden Globe for the TV movie The Last of the Blonde Bombshells. Had she been, undoubtedly she would have struck the same modest tone she hit in her Oscar acceptance speech, in which she said, ”The best thing about the Academy Awards is being nominated … the terrible thing is that somebody’s got to win.” With Chocolat, Dench may experience that wonderful ”terrible thing” again.