A hushed silence descends on the bustling lobby at London’s Mayfair Hotel as Judi Dench makes her way gracefully through the crowd of vacationers, businessmen, and paparazzi. At age 78, she has the gait of a woman many years her junior and she moves through the melee with apparent ease. She acknowledges the compliment and says matter-of-factly, “I have a new knee.” Her gaze is direct. “It’s titanium, you know.”
It’s clear from the first moment of being in her company that Dench is not a celebrity who enjoys being fussed over and most likely eschews the typical star treatment whenever possible. A waiter appears and offers her an extensive range of beverages. “Oh, I would quite like a white coffee; that would be grand,” she replies, and gets settled in her seat.
The last time we watched Dench was on the big screen in the James Bond film, Skyfall, in which she reprised the iconic role of M for the final time. “Oh, I shall miss it, of course. I had seventeen years of Bond: four with Pierce (Brosnan) and three with Daniel (Craig). It was a hugely wonderful time bossing all those men around.” She smiles. “My grandson thinks I’m frightfully cool. That role goes down very, very well with young men. Now they don’t say, ‘Would you give me an autograph for my grandmother?’ She leans forward. “I’ve gotten a lot of love letters from very, very young men.” She nods, adding, “It’s lovely.”
Dench is here to discuss her latest project, Philomena, in which she plays the titular role in this heartbreaking and true account of a young Irish girl in the 1950s who becomes pregnant. Shunned by her family, a common reaction of its time, Philomena was forced to live in a convent, a Magdalene institution where fellow ‘fallen women’ served out their punishment by enduring horrific abuse and performing unpaid labour by laundering prison and priest uniforms along with various other domestic chores in return for their upkeep. Tragically, the nuns sold their babies, many of whom were sent to American families who were unable to bear their own children.
The story picks up 50 years later when Philomena reveals the truth about her secret child, and with the help of a world-weary journalist, they make the trek to America in search of her long lost son.
Starring alongside British comic actor, Steve Coogan, their chemistry is palpable and gives the film its charm and realism while the story dances between comedy and tragedy. “I saw the completed film last night,” Dench says. “And I gave Steve a good hard pinch. He’s a standup comic, how dare he be able to do what he did in this film! How dare he!” she repeats. “I couldn’t go and tell a lot of jokes like he does. I couldn’t do that. But you know, it was wonderful to work with Steve; he made me laugh every single day.”
Dench can boast an enormous litany of work for which she has garnered countless accolades and was awarded an OBE in 1988. Her career for the most part was entrenched in theatre until she came to mainstream Hollywood starring in Mrs. Brown, in 1977. “I totally credit (producer) Harvey Weinstein with my career in film,” she gushes.
She went on to appear in many movies, often playing royalty such as in Shakespeare in Love, as well as contemporary films including Notes on a Scandal, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
”It’s easier to play people who’ve been dead for 200 years,” she says. “So when I agreed to do Philomena, I needed to meet her before I started shooting. We met at lunch and she made me laugh so much. She has a wonderful sense of humour, and every time I’ve spoken to her, she mentioned how much she loved that boy. She was concerned that we didn’t in any way over-dramatise, over-glamorise or cheapen her story.”
Dench comes across as a woman not to be messed with, and presumably, rarely is. Born in Yorkshire, she was married to Michael Williams from 1971 to 2001, until his death. She has one daughter, Tara ‘Flinty’ Williams, 41, also an actress.
Like most mothers, Philomena’s ability to forgive those responsible for her loss is incomprehensible. Dench says, “Well, I understand that Philomena was about to forgive those nuns, but I certainly couldn’t do it. I can’t imagine myself doing that at all. We all hold grudges, don’t we, about things? Terrible grudges.”
Dench has several movies lined up and clearly has no interest in slowing down. Considering, there isn’t much she hasn’t done on screen, is there a special role she’s especially hankering to do?
Dench considers, thoughtfully. “It’s funny. The other day, someone said, ‘What kind of play do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I want to be in a play where I am an Afghan woman who learns to walk the tightrope and in the last act turns into a dragon.’” She turns to me. “So, yes, that’s a role I’d like to do.”