There's nothing like a dame
She played M in seven Bond films; she's played monarchs and Murdoch. After remarkable true-life tale Philomena, is Dame Judi Dench thinking of retirement? No, she wants the next challenge.
Acting royalty; it's the first thing that comes to mind when you meet Dame Judi Dench. Her trophy cabinet alone must be a devil to clean, with its 11 Baftas, seven Olivier awards, one Oscar and countless other glittering prizes. Then there are the roles – from monarchs (Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I) to Murdoch (Iris, that is) to M. Never mind her years at the RSC and National Theatre, just her seven outings alone as James Bond's boss is enough to bestow her with the status of national treasure.
All of which makes an encounter with the 78- year-old Dame Judi a daunting prospect – not helped when I blunder into asking if she worries about getting older. "You're joking!" she cries. "You'll say 'Are you going to retire next?' How dare you!" She smiles, wickedly, suggesting she's not really annoyed. "No, well, of course I do. I fear about not being able to learn the lines. I've got to go and have a knee operation on Friday and I worry about walking from here to there. So I worry continually."
With Dench in town for the Venice Film Festival, we're sitting in a restaurant with a breathtaking view over the Italian city. Sure enough, she's carefully guided to and from the table by a security guard, offering her an arm to lean on. But don't let that fool you: her sight may be failing, but there's enough life in those blue eyes of hers to fill an auditorium. "I constantly get surprises," she says. "Constantly. And I like to learn something new every day. Just one thing. Or maybe two."
She's in Italy with her companion David Mills, who runs the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey; it's her first major relationship since her husband of 30 years, actor Michael Williams, died from lung cancer in 2001.
Last night, they had a bet – she loves to gamble – about her new film Philomena. Mills thought it would get a standing ovation; she didn't. "I said, 'Are you ready to bet on this? I bet you a return visit to Venice. If they stand up, we will come back to Venice again.'"
Needless to say, Dench lost. Directed by Stephen Frears, with whom she made Mrs Henderson Presents, Philomena was greeted with a roar of approval from the Italian audience. Co-written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (who won Best Screenplay at the festival), it's based on the book by BBC political journalist Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and tells a remarkable true-life tale that's touching, poignant and frequently funny.
Back in the early fifties, living in Ireland, the teenage Philomena fell pregnant and her family swiftly marched her off to a Catholic convent in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Then came the real horror as Philomena gave birth to a boy, who was later sold off by the nuns to a wealthy American couple. For 50 years, she kept it a secret until, after a little too much sherry one night, she told her daughter. Then the search began for her long-lost child – which is where Sixsmith (played by Coogan) came in.
While the film could easily be seen as another attack on the Catholic Church, Dench distances it from films like Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters. "For me, it's about a woman who can come to terms and live with [this secret] all that time – for years and years. To go through the search with Martin Sixsmith and come out as a much stronger person ... I don't think there are many people whose story that could possibly be."
Dench, whose own mother Eleanora came from Dublin, got to have lunch with the real Philomena before the shoot. "She's very funny," says Dench. "She is a naïve, funny person. And I don't mean naïve in any kind of rude way. I said to her, 'Your hair, Philomena – it's so dark.' She said, 'Ah, yes, I always have the tint bottle near me!' That's such an endearing thing to say."
As much as it's a quirky odd-couple road movie, underpinning it are themes of faith and forgiveness. Just as Philomena remains true to her Catholic beliefs, so Dench has been a Quaker since her days at secondary school in York, where she was raised – though even now she finds it difficult articulating what that means to her. "All I know is that it's like scaffolding inside and I need it and I can't do without it."
She will, however, have to do without playing M, after finally departing from the James Bond franchise last year in the mega-hit Skyfall. Will she miss it? "Do you think I'm going to ring Ralph Fiennes and breathe heavily down the phone?" she laughs, referring to the actor taking over the role. "Of course I'll miss it. But I had 17 years of it, and I had a hugely wonderful time bossing them all about. And my grandson [Dench has one daughter, 41-year-old Tara 'Finty' Williams] thinks it's frightfully cool."
Currently attached to a Richard Curtis-scripted television movie Esio Trot, co-starring Dustin Hoffman, Dench is determined to carry on. "I hope there are a few things next year!" Like what? "I said to somebody the other day, 'I want to be in a play where I'm an Afghan woman who learns to walk the tightrope and in the last act turns into a dragon! Where's that play?' I don't want to play anyone like Philomena. I want to play something different."
Philomena opens at cinemas today