Opinion: Deadlier Than The Male Ian White February 25, 2013 Features, Opinion 4501 For the longest time there’s been a lament in the television and film industries, that there aren’t enough good roles for actresses â€˜of a certain ageâ€™. Unfortunately it’s still true. Itâ€™s especially true in the action genre where audiences somehow donâ€™t have a problem watching a fuller-bellied, tragically botoxed Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sly Stallone inexplicably heave themselves out of retirement to waste the bad guys but give an older actress a gun and an attitudeâ€¦ well, now youâ€™re pushing credibility too far. But occasionally, very occasionally, some extraordinarily far-sighted writers and directors present opportunities to those actresses and in return the ladies show us what we’ve been missing, that a mature woman and the action / thriller story can not only go together, but their involvement can also enhance the mix with elements that include â€˜classâ€™, ‘surprise’, ‘unexpected jeopardy’ and – however the ending pans out – ‘heightened emotion’. I want to talk about two of the most celebrated female actors British film, television and theatre has ever produced. Between them (and I didnâ€™t believe this either, until I just did the math) they have given the world a hundred years-worth of inspiring, electrifying performances on stage and screen. And just when we thought weâ€™d seen everything they could do, one of them turns out to be pretty handy with a machine gun while the other knows how to improvise a deadly weapon out of a lightbulb. Theyâ€™re the most lethal Dames in cinemaâ€¦ Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. And yes, I know Dame Maggie Smith proved sheâ€™s pretty terrifying with a wand during the â€˜Harry Potterâ€™ movies but I thought her inclusion might be pushing my argument just a tad too far. Letâ€™s talk about Dame Judi first. When she and Pierce Brosnan joined the James Bond family back in 1995, they reinvigorated the franchise. Not least, because Judi Denchâ€™s M challenged Bond to outgrow the sexist, misogynist dinosaur heâ€™d become. She was steel but she was also warmth, and making the new M â€œa ladyâ€ (as Robbie Coltrane purrs, during â€˜Goldeneyeâ€™) gave the character more depth and potential than was ever previously realised. But not even the staunchest fan could have predicted that one day, and in the finest 007 film of all â€“ 2012â€™s â€˜Skyfallâ€™ â€“ Judi Dench would also become the franchise’s most significant Bond Girl. I’m going to be careful how I say this, because it would be just my luck that the one person who hasn’t seen ‘Skyfall’ reads this first, but the arc that John Logan, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis designed for M during that film was an expert piece of storytelling and character development and an absolute credit to the actress who, for seventeen years, had successfully made Mâ€™s office her own. They were smart enough to know that true action isnâ€™t just about running and jumping and how good your hero looks hauling a gun, itâ€™s about the struggle that goes on inside the character, the choices theyâ€™re forced to take even against their own personal judgement, and the fact that â€“ whatever the age or gender â€“ when the going gets tough, the tough get going. There wasnâ€™t a single point during any of her Bond appearances when Judi Dench didnâ€™t convince us she had the mettle to be 007â€™s boss, but the ending of â€˜Skyfallâ€™ really was a â€˜put up or shut upâ€™ moment. If she couldnâ€™t convince us she could operate in the field, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bond during that spectacular finale, Mâ€™s credibility would have been undone. More than that, the entire last Act of the film would have been critically undermined. But of course director Sam Mendes and his team knew Dame Judi wouldnâ€™t let them down. The result is she made a significant and emotionally-charged contribution to the most successful film in Bond history. And then thereâ€™s Dame Helen Mirren. Okay, hereâ€™s my Helen Mirren story. Itâ€™s not really a story.Â A million years ago I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and my enduring memory of that experience isnâ€™t nervously reciting a piece from â€˜King Learâ€™ for three people who looked like they wanted to throw me out the third floor window, but that while I paced outside the rehearsal room waiting for my moment to â€“ ehm â€“ shine, I fell in love with a photograph on the wall of a young Helen Mirren playing Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company. And I swore that if I successfully made it through this audition I would, one day, track Helen Mirren down and give her wholehearted credit for what was obviously going to be my superstar acting career. So, she obviously didnâ€™t work for me as a lucky charm, but mumble-mumble years later Iâ€™m still entranced by everything she does, not least by her performance in â€˜REDâ€™ (2010) as an ex-MI6 agent who â€œlove(s) baking, love(s) flower arrangingâ€¦ (and) I take the odd contract on the side.â€ Anyone whoâ€™s seen that film knows there is nothing remotely apologetic or comedic about Helen Mirrenâ€™s appearance in â€˜REDâ€™. She is every bit the equal to Bruce Willisâ€™s retired secret agent, and we totally believe her when she single-handedly holds off a lethal assault team when a mission goes bad and Willis and John Malkovich try to make their escape. Whatâ€™s not to love from a woman who, when we first meet her, has a machine gun concealed under a flower arrangement and, much later, sweetly but convincingly warns Mary-Louise Parker that if she breaks Bruce Willisâ€™ heart â€œIâ€™ll bury you in the woods.â€ I canâ€™t wait to see what she does in the upcoming â€˜RED 2â€™. Iâ€™m going to cheat a little bit now, and briefly mention a third actress who isnâ€™t currently a Dame but sheâ€™s definitely in the Judi Dench and Helen Mirren category, whose phenomenal career spans more than four decades in cinema and who has also played characters who, without doubt, shouldnâ€™t be messed with. Weâ€™re talking (of course) about Charlotte Rampling, who (among other things) has dabbled with voodoo in â€˜Angel Heartâ€™ (1987), played â€˜Spy Gameâ€™ with Robert Redford in 2001 and most recently redesigned the role of the femme fatale in Barnaby Southcombeâ€™s excellent thriller â€˜I, Annaâ€™. Itâ€™s my interview with Barnaby Southcombe that inspired me to write this essay. When I spoke with him about â€˜I, Annaâ€™ Barnaby raised a point that I didn’t include in my finished article because I feared it might spoil the film for those who havenâ€™t seen it. In retrospect, I donâ€™t think it would spoil anything at all. Infact, it might just enhance the experience. â€˜I, Annaâ€™ is a wonderfully layered film, and one of the many layers (which isnâ€™t heavily dwelt upon) is a depression suffered by Ms. Ramplingâ€™s character. Itâ€™s an element thatâ€™s very well handled in both writing, direction and performance, and when I asked him about it, Barnaby told me that when he wrote the screenplay heâ€™d done some research on PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). He said that people â€œthink of PTSD as a male syndrome because itâ€™s most often associated with soldiers coming back from the war, but women can suffer from it too.â€ He also said (and I did include this in the article) that one of the things which drew him to Elsa Lewinâ€™s original novel was that Anna is â€œnot your thirty-something bombshell femme fatale.â€ According to online sources, â€˜Dreddâ€™ producer Adi Shankar wants to develop a kind of female â€˜Expendablesâ€™, a movie that could, speculatively, unite some of the most famous action heroines of the eighties and nineties to do some bad guy karate-kicking. Names like Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton right back to Cynthia Rothrock and Brigitte Nielsen have been mentioned although, apparently, negotiations are ongoingâ€¦ so donâ€™t get your hopes up yet. But my point is, with an approach like that, Shankar would be missing my point. Although it will make him a lot of money so Iâ€™m sure he could care less. Letâ€™s face it, despite critical panning there will always be an audience for a boom-bang muscular no-brainer even when most of the muscles lost their tone many years ago. â€˜A Good Day To Die Hardâ€™ has been slaughtered by press and fans but thereâ€™s supposedly already another â€˜Die Hardâ€™ in the works. And â€˜The Expendables 2â€™ was the 21st highest-grossing film of 2012 with a reported worldwide box office that wiped the floor with the millions made by the previous movie. But â€˜The Expendablesâ€™ was nothing new. Itâ€™s a tragic dumbing down of a very old idea, and if you want to see an action movie about old men made with humour and intelligence and, underneath it all, a story that actually means something then check out Andrew V. McLaglenâ€™s excellent â€˜The Wild Geeseâ€™ (1978). True, Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore etc. didnâ€™t have the biceps of Stallone and his crew, but they played three-dimensional characters with an emotional agenda we could believe in, and the fact they werenâ€™t built like superheroes also upped their personal crisis-factor and makes â€˜The Wild Geeseâ€™ a thrilling, engrossing watch even today. Oh yeah, and the cast of â€˜The Wild Geeseâ€™ could act. Yes, even Roger Moore. Honest human motion, superior acting ability and wonderful nuanced screenwriting is the key. Thatâ€™s what Adi Shankar will be missing if he dusts down Linda Hamilton and company for a â€œwhere did I least leave my oestrogenâ€ redux of â€˜The Expendablesâ€™. And thatâ€™s where Logan, Wade and Purvis got it right with Judi Dench and Barnaby Southcombe got it right with Charlotte Rampling and, yes, although the â€˜REDâ€™ script is admittedly high-class bubblegum, the inclusion of Helen Mirrenâ€™s character even made that generic actioner something special. And those attributes only come with experience and maturity on both sides of the camera. Box office receipts are proving that audiences donâ€™t just want to watch helicopters blow up anymore, they want intelligence and emotion. Thatâ€™s why â€˜Skyfallâ€™ made such an impact at the end of last year, itâ€™s why â€˜Argoâ€™ just won the Best Picture Oscar and â€˜Zero Dark Thirtyâ€™ was among the nominees, itâ€™s the reason â€˜The Hurt Lockerâ€™ took Best Picture in 2010. Yes, audiences want to be pumped up by the action onscreen but we also want to feel connected to the characters involved in that action because that sense of connection heightens our sense of tension and makes the experience of what weâ€™re watching all the richer. Thatâ€™s where those dames of a certain age (and I donâ€™t just mean Dames by Royal approval, hence the small â€˜dâ€™) win out every time because they give us characters we can believe in and be fascinated by. Because what goes on behind their eyes, the surprising decisions their maturity and experience forces them to take â€“ with weapons or without – can be as dynamic, unpredictable and deadly as any carnage wreaked by Stallone-Wills-Schwarzenegger-Van Damme and his rocket launcher. English roses have the sharpest thorns. Never forget that.