A few years ago, a British poll found that the Queen was no longer the most popular and respected woman in Britain. She had been bumped to the No. 2 spot by Judi Dench, who, having played several queens, many Shakespearean roles and James Bond's M, is almost as much of a British institution as the monarch herself.
I want to play an Afghan woman who learns to walk the tightrope and in the last act turns into a dragon. Where's that play? I want to do something different.
Dench, who turns 79 on December 9, has been labelled a national treasure, which doesn't please her. "It sounds pretty dusty to me," she told an interviewer who mentioned the T-word. "It's Alan Bennett and I behind glass in some forgotten old cupboard. I don't like it at all."
As time goes by … though she turns 79 tomorrow, Judi Dench shows no sign of slowing down. Photo: trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media
Dame Judi Dench is actually quite scary, as befits a woman of multiple queendoms. One of her favoured responses to questions is "Are you joking?", when you clearly aren't.
We meet at the Venice Film Festival, where her latest film Philomena has just screened to huge acclaim. In it she plays the real-life figure of Philomena Lee, a strong-minded Irish woman searching for the son she was forced to give up as an unmarried mother 50 years earlier. Both the film and her performance veer almost magically between tough emotions and surprisingly zippy comedy; it should win a slew of Oscars.
An interview, of course, is its own kind of performance. One rather green reporter asks if she worries about the process of getting older. "You're joking! You're joking!" she interrupts him mid-sentence. "Just don't use the word! Next you're going to ask me when I'm going to retire. How dare you!
"Of course I do. I fear not being able to learn the lines. I've got to go and have a knee operation on Friday and have my whole knee replaced. I worry about walking from here to there. I worry continually."
So that's that, then.
It is notable that even the famously funny Steve Coogan, who wrote Philomena and stars alongside Dench, is prepared to defer to her in every comic scene; he lets her be the funny one.
"I hadn't thought about it, but yes," agrees Stephen Frears, the director. "Well, you behave yourself if Judi's there. He wasn't going to get ticked off [by her] for trying to hog the limelight."
Judi Dench has been in that limelight practically since the day she left the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1957. From the start, she set new benchmarks for Shakespeare's women, but she wasn't all about the classics: her Sally Bowles in the 1968 West End production of Cabaret was the performance that made her a star, despite the fact she can't really sing.
Her television work ranged from the truly cutting-edge – John Hopkins' landmark television drama Talking to a Stranger, bits of which are on YouTube, remains revelatory almost 50 years after it was broadcast – to the comfortable sitcom A Fine Romance, made with her late husband Michael Williams in the early '80s. The Shakespeare fans were sniffily surprised when she did that, but Dench just said: "I think it is our business to do as many things as we can."
She still feels like that. "Someone the other day asked, 'What kind of play do you want to do?' I said, 'I want to play an Afghan woman who learns to walk the tightrope and in the last act turns into a dragon,' " she recalls with the hint of a chuckle. "I said, 'Where's that play? I want to do something different'."
There is no question of her slowing down as her ninth decade approaches; bizarrely, she is still so nervous about where the next job is coming from that she can't even discuss it. "I don't take any of it for granted, ever."
Work is her rock. Her husband Michael Williams died of cancer in 2001 – they had been famously devoted for almost 40 years – and the day after his funeral she went to Canada to film The Shipping News with Kevin Spacey. Then, the day after she got home, she started filming Iris.
"I am working harder since Michael died," she said later. "You see, we always made sure that we made time for each other. People, friends, kept saying, 'You are not facing up to it; you need to face up to it.' And maybe they were right, but I felt I was – in the acting. Grief supplies you with an enormous amount of energy. I needed to use that up."
Is she a workaholic? "You're joking!"
Dench never expected to have a career in film. She first auditioned for a movie when she was flying high at the Old Vic theatre company; it was a hard landing. "Well, Miss Dench, I have to tell you," said the director she does not name, "you have every single thing wrong with your face."
At that point, she decided she wasn't made for the movies. She was 60 when she was cast as M in GoldenEye, the first of her seven Bond films, which came as a complete surprise to her. Then American film mogul Harvey Weinstein spotted the potential of a film she had made for television with Billy Connolly, Mrs Brown. It was a turning point that led her to a series of extraordinary performances in films such as Iris and Notes on a Scandal (and rather less extraordinary roles in films such as The Chronicles of Riddick) and six Oscar nominations. Weinstein's name, she sometimes jokes, "is tattooed on my bum".
Not such a queenly remark, that. That's the thing about Dench: her reputation is formidable, but she is just as often described as cosy or suburban. A British Board of Film Classification report a few years ago noted that protests rolled in if she was heard to swear on film, no matter the role.
She lives with her daughter Finty, her grandson and a menagerie ranging from dogs to goldfish; she does crosswords and sudoku – "It's bloody difficult, isn't it?" – and plays cards.
"I love betting on things," she says on the day after the Philomena premiere. "I didn't win last night. I had a bet with my friend David, who said, 'Everyone will stand up at the end of this.' And I said, 'Oh, David, nobody stands up at the end of things, nobody!' So then I said, 'Are you ready to bet on it?' And he said OK. I said, 'I'll bet you a return visit to Venice; if they stand up, we'll come back.' And he said, 'You're on'."
She is already looking forward to paying up.
It is this sympathetic, jolly side that is to the fore in Philomena; we notice the wrinkles and dumpiness normally obscured by the Dame's regal radiance.
She met the real Philomena Lee and clearly liked her tremendously.
"She is a naive, funny person and I don't mean that in any kind of rude way. I said to her, 'Your hair, Philomena, it's so dark!' And she said, 'Oh yes, I always have the tint bottle near me.' Well, you know, that is such an endearing thing to say. And she's very Irish, which my mother was. Not that she was like my mother in any way, but I have many Irish friends and there was a familiarity."
More than liking her, however, Dench was in awe of Philomena Lee's generosity of spirit, that she was able to say truthfully that she forgave the nuns who took her child.
"I couldn't do that. For 50 years she must have looked at his photograph and thought, 'It's his birthday today'. The whole thing must have played over and over in her mind like a film and yet, after all that, she is able to turn around and say, 'I forgive you'. I don't think there are many people whose story that could possibly be. We all hold grudges, don't we, about things? Terrible grudges."
We never discover what terrible grudges Dench may hold. Bereavement has hit her hard, but she recognises that "you feel fantastically lucky you had what we had".
And, of course, she has her work. She says she has never wanted out of a play, never disliked a theatre company. Working with Steve Coogan was such fun, she says: "He made me laugh every single day."
She will miss Bond, but she has had 17 "hugely enjoyable" years. She says she feels about 29. That probably isn't quite true, but she says it with such conviction and sheer panache you absolutely believe her.
She's a class act, this dame. I'd say she's a national treasure, but I really don't dare.
THE LOST CHILD OF PHILOMENA LEE
Convent girl Philomena Lee didn't know how babies were made at the point when, aged 18, she discovered she was pregnant. Disowned by her family, she was sent to give birth at a country convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where she was allowed to see her baby for an hour a day while she worked for no wages in the convent's laundries.
At the end of three years, she was obliged to sign away her son Anthony for adoption by one of many American families prepared to "donate" two to three thousand dollars – a huge sum in 1952 – for an Irish baby. Philomena was then released under threat of eternal damnation if she told anyone her "shameful secret".
She did tell the man she subsequently married, but they never spoke of it again. It was only after 50 years that she told her adult daughter Jane that she had another child. Jane then doggedly pursued adoption boards and contemporary records and eventually discovered that her brother Anthony had become Michael Hess, at one stage a high-flying lawyer working for the Republican Party in America.
What they did not know was that Michael had visited the convent several times in an attempt to trace his mother, leaving his contact details with the nuns, while Philomena had been trying to find him. Their respective searches almost crossed paths – they both visited the convent in 1977 – but the resident sisters said nothing.
It was Jane who asked former BBC Washington correspondent Martin Sixsmith to help her mother find out what happened to her son; his book about that search was called The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
Steve Coogan was inspired by the book to write the script for Philomena, which he then produced. He says the story has been shuffled for dramatic effect and he has injected a good deal of himself into the role of Sixsmith, but that there is no doubt that the convent was effectively selling children, despite church denials. "And there is anecdotal evidence that they had a big fire and burned lots of records," Coogan says. "It is not something I can confirm, but we didn't invent that."
Philomena is released on December 26.
Lead-in image: trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media.