Dame Judi Dench is worth watching no matter what she does. The English actress, who won an Academy Award for eight minutes of screen time as Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love," appears in HBO's original TV movie, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (Saturday, Aug. 26, 9-10:20 p.m.). Even in this minor film, she radiates intelligence and wit.
Dench plays Elizabeth, a woman recently widowed, who fondly recalls the days of World War II when she played saxophone in an (almost) all-female band in bombarded London. In flashbacks, we learn the whole story of the talented troupe that thrived under siege.
When Elizabeth's young granddaughter hears her play one day, she asks her grandmother to gather her old band and play for her school dance.
Meanwhile, one of the group's members eventually finds Elizabeth - a wily rogue (Ian Holm) who cross-dresses in order to play drums for the Blonde Bombshells - and the two old friends search for each member of the band. Some have died, some have left England, one is in a nursing home. But two are making a living as musicians, and the rest still have some spirit and talent left.
The ancient dalliances between Holm's character and each of the women had divided the sisterhood and precipitated the breakup of the band. All these women fighting over one man (who tricked them all) is a lame device - what, they didn't know what he was up to?
Much better to have made the end of the war the impetus to break up. With so much of the male population off to war, women took up new roles on the home front. After the war, these women relinquished their jobs, sometimes reluctantly, to returning veterans.
Still, what really counts about this modest picture is Elizabeth's affirmation of her life - she doesn't give in to age, to her grown children's well-meaning (but constrictive) advice, or to grief. She searches through time for that moment that meant the most to her - when talent and opportunity let her make music. And then she re-creates it.
The extraordinary Dench helps us feel how much more life Elizabeth has to live - how much her music is essential to that life. And Holm, as her comic foil and would-be love interest, gives her scope and power. Leslie Caron, Olympia Dukakis, and jazz diva Cleo Laine add zest to the production. A caution: The film's adult themes make it most appropriate for mature audiences.
Another modest, cheery little film about making music this week is The Sandy Bottom Orchestra (Showtime, Sunday, Aug. 27, 8-9:40 p.m.), based on the novel by Garrison Keillor and wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson. The family picture also boasts a substantial cast including Glenne Headly, Tom Irwin, young Madeline Zima, and veteran Jane Powell, who tune the novel's fine notes just right.
Norman (Irwin) is a dairy farmer who dreams of conducting an orchestra. His wife, Ingrid, brings a big-city perspective to the small town of Sandy Bottom, and fights cultural erosion wherever she sees it. The townsfolk consider her an eccentric, and her 14-year-old daughter, Rachel (Zima), a gifted violinist, is always a little embarrassed by her mother's causes. Only Delia (Powell) understands Ingrid.
Still, it's a functional family with a wholesome heart. And as Norman's dream comes true and he forms an orchestra that includes his daughter and his wife (on piano), each of them learns something about tact, wisdom, and perseverance. And as each commits to the orchestra, the effort to produce music for their community and for each other becomes an act of affirmation.
"I thought it was a sweet story," says Headly in a recent telephone interview. "I thought it would appeal to kids and to adults, and some family movies are really just too silly for adults.
"The film is about finding your identity. The mother has problems coping with the town folk, and the daughter has a problem finding her identity as a musician and how that relates to her friends...."
These two gentle films entertain quietly - each a tad sentimental, but decent and kindly.
On a completely different order of art is British playwright David Hare's brilliant one-man show Via Dolorosa (PBS, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 9:30-11 p.m., check local listings), performed by the writer himself. The monologue is staged simply, shot simply, and delivered with breathtaking purity (it's Hare's acting debut). Hare's witty, deeply penetrating look at contemporary Israel is moving beyond words.
The monologue is drawn from his personal experiences in Israel, where he interviewed Jews and Palestinians alike. A gentile married to a Jewish woman, he wanted to find out what was happening there for himself. From right-wing extremists to liberals who lament the assassination of Rabin, to a Palestinian politician in Gaza and a Christian Arab, Hare allows each to speak his or her own mind - often with great passion. The playwright shapes his own concerns and observations into a coherent, heartbreaking whole.
The title, taken from the path that tradition says Jesus walked to his crucifixion, references Hare's own Christian background. And as he treads that path associated with Jesus' sacrifice, he ponders the place Christianity holds in the great city. Layers of history, politics, religion, and ethics make this piece a profound, enlightening experience.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society