For the longest time there’s been a lament in the television and film industries, that there aren’t enough good roles for actresses ‘of a certain age’.

Unfortunately it’s still true.

It’s especially true in the action genre where audiences somehow don’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 attitude… well, now you’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 ‘class’, ‘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 didn’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 we’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.

They’re the most lethal Dames in cinema… Judi Dench and Helen Mirren.

And yes, I know Dame Maggie Smith proved she’s pretty terrifying with a wand during the ‘Harry Potter’ movies but I thought her inclusion might be pushing my argument just a tad too far.judi_dench_m_james_bond_skyfall

Let’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 Dench’s M challenged Bond to outgrow the sexist, misogynist dinosaur he’d become. She was steel but she was also warmth, and making the new M “a lady” (as Robbie Coltrane purrs, during ‘Goldeneye’) 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 – 2012’s ‘Skyfall’ – 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 M’s office her own. They were smart enough to know that true action isn’t just about running and jumping and how good your hero looks hauling a gun, it’s about the struggle that goes on inside the character, the choices they’re forced to take even against their own personal judgement, and the fact that – whatever the age or gender – when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

There wasn’t a single point during any of her Bond appearances when Judi Dench didn’t convince us she had the mettle to be 007’s boss, but the ending of ‘Skyfall’ really was a ‘put up or shut up’ moment. If she couldn’t convince us she could operate in the field, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bond during that spectacular finale, M’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 wouldn’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 there’s Dame Helen Mirren. Okay, here’s my Helen Mirren story. It’s not really a story.  A million years ago I auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and my enduring memory of that experience isn’t nervously reciting a piece from ‘King Lear’ 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 – ehm – 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.helen-mirren-red

So, she obviously didn’t work for me as a lucky charm, but mumble-mumble years later I’m still entranced by everything she does, not least by her performance in ‘RED’ (2010) as an ex-MI6 agent who “love(s) baking, love(s) flower arranging… (and) I take the odd contract on the side.”

Anyone who’s seen that film knows there is nothing remotely apologetic or comedic about Helen Mirren’s appearance in ‘RED’. She is every bit the equal to Bruce Willis’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.

What’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 Willis’ heart “I’ll bury you in the woods.”

I can’t wait to see what she does in the upcoming ‘RED 2’.

I’m going to cheat a little bit now, and briefly mention a third actress who isn’t currently a Dame but she’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, shouldn’t be messed with.

We’re talking (of course) about Charlotte Rampling, who (among other things) has dabbled with voodoo in ‘Angel Heart’ (1987), played ‘Spy Game’ with Robert Redford in 2001 and most recently redesigned the role of the femme fatale in Barnaby Southcombe’s excellent thriller ‘I, Anna’.

It’s my interview with Barnaby Southcombe that inspired me to write this essay. When I spoke with him about ‘I, Anna’ Barnaby raised a point that I didn’t include in my finished article because I feared it might spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. In retrospect, I don’t think it would spoil anything at all. Infact, it might just enhance the experience.

‘I, Anna’ is a wonderfully layered film, and one of the many layers (which isn’t heavily dwelt upon) is a depression suffered by Ms. Rampling’s character. It’s an element that’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 he’d done some research on PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). He said that people “think of PTSD as a male syndrome because it’s most often associated with soldiers coming back from the war, but women can suffer from it too.”

He also said (and I did include this in the article) that one of the things which drew him to Elsa Lewin’s original novel was that Anna is “not your thirty-something bombshell femme fatale.”tumblr_m8qecoPi661qg7dpbo1_500

According to online sources, ‘Dredd’ producer Adi Shankar wants to develop a kind of female ‘Expendables’, 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 ongoing… so don’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 I’m sure he could care less.

Let’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. ‘A Good Day To Die Hard’ has been slaughtered by press and fans but there’s supposedly already another ‘Die Hard’ in the works. And ‘The Expendables 2’ 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 ‘The Expendables’ was nothing new. It’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. McLaglen’s excellent ‘The Wild Geese’ (1978). True, Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore etc. didn’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 weren’t built like superheroes also upped their personal crisis-factor and makes ‘The Wild Geese’ a thrilling, engrossing watch even today.

Oh yeah, and the cast of ‘The Wild Geese’ could act. Yes, even Roger Moore.

Honest human motion, superior acting ability and wonderful nuanced screenwriting is the key. That’s what Adi Shankar will be missing if he dusts down Linda Hamilton and company for a “where did I least leave my oestrogen” redux of ‘The Expendables’. And that’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 ‘RED’ script is admittedly high-class bubblegum, the inclusion of Helen Mirren’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 don’t just want to watch helicopters blow up anymore, they want intelligence and emotion. That’s why ‘Skyfall’ made such an impact at the end of last year, it’s why ‘Argo’ just won the Best Picture Oscar and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was among the nominees, it’s the reason ‘The Hurt Locker’ 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 we’re watching all the richer.

That’s where those dames of a certain age (and I don’t just mean Dames by Royal approval, hence the small ‘d’) 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 – 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.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white