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Dame Judi thrives at 79
Dame Judi Dench in Philomena. Picture: Supplied

Judi Dench's M may have been killed in the last 007 movie Skyfall, yet the British dame isn't going anywhere.

At 79, the Academy Award winner openly admits that she is moving slowly and struggling to remember her lines but she still brings a well of emotion and a lifetime of honing her craft to her latest role.

Even if they are about the same age, she says that Philomena Lee, the naive Irish Catholic woman she portrays in Stephen Frears' film Philomena, is about as far from herself as she could imagine.

Dench certainly couldn't envisage having her daughter taken away by the Catholic Church for adoption as Philomena had experienced with her three-year-old son in the 1950s, only to go searching for him 50 years later with former journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan in the film.

Dench had been "bowled over" by Philomena's story and wanted to meet her before filming.

"We met over a lunch," Dench recalls. "Philomena was very, very funny, and couldn't stop talking about it. I can't imagine what this movie would do to her life. It must be expiating a huge amount, 50 years' worth of being quiet and not saying anything.

"She must have thought about it every single day; she must have looked at that photograph of her son on every birthday. I am absolutely staggered that she chose not to say anything during those 50 years.

"There must have been an evening when she was relaxing with her daughter over a drink and suddenly it came out. But it didn't. Then after discovering everything that happened, she was able to turn around and say 'I forgive you'. Who else would do that? That's why this story is worth telling."

Dench was captivated by Lee's naivety, which became central to her performance and to the humour in Coogan and Jeff Pope's screenplay, which they based on Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

"When we were talking she'd say terribly funny things like 'I never knew I had a clitoris'," Dench recalls with a chuckle. "Then she said 'I always knew my son was gay because of when I saw the picture of him in the dungarees'. It's so off the wall, isn't it? It's so unlike anything you would put together about a person."
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in a scene from Philomena. Picture: AP

Even if she is far from naive, there is an old-fashioned air to Dench. She is, after all, a woman of the theatre who came late to movies and rarely embraces celebrity trappings - she rarely gives interviews - or even popular culture. Her favourite stage performance was Shakespeare though she laments: "There are not many parts left for me to play. I have played most of them. I don't want to play the nurse in Romeo and Juliet."

She didn't know about Coogan's famous Alan Partridge character until after they started working together.

"I have said it quite openly," Dench pronounces with her well-rounded vowels, "Steve is a stand-up comedian and I was outraged that he was so good. I gave him an enormous pinch on the arm last night because I can't do what he does. But he can do what we do."

We are speaking after the film's Venice Festival premiere where audience members were overwhelmed with emotion. "You can't watch the film dispassionately," Dench notes.

Making it though wasn't that tough. "Steve made me laugh every day of the shoot. Every single day he made me laugh."

In what is essentially an odd-couple drama Coogan's wry wit is a good match for Frears' sardonic view of the world. The screenplay, indeed Sixsmith's book, could have been written by Frears, who is well known for his social critiques, going back to his early work with Alan Bennett. While Dench admits she can be critical, she has always adopted a positive view.

"My husband once said to me 'You are always charging towards the light' because I am a Sagittarian. He was always charging towards the dark because he was a Cancerian. But he said somehow we hang on to the middle and we are able to keep a kind of balance."

While Dench sometimes speaks of her cherished husband in the present tense, Michael Williams, a heavy-smoking actor, died after a battle with lung cancer in 2001 at age 65. They had been together for almost 40 years, 14 of which they spent working together at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Dench says she knows the Irish vernacular well from her Irish mother, who "was nothing like Philomena; she was from Dublin". Williams was entirely Irish.

"My husband was a Catholic and I am a Quaker and they couldn't be further apart," she says. "It's the complete antithesis of Catholicism."

Following Williams' death Dench threw herself headlong into movies. She was Oscar nominated for Iris (2001), Mrs Henderson Presents (2005, directed by Frears) and Notes on a Scandal (2006) alongside Cate Blanchett, after previously being nominated for Mrs Brown (1997) and Chocolat (2000). She won for supporting actress, perhaps fittingly, in Shakespeare in Love (1998).

The big surprise though was her success in GoldenEye (1995), the first of her seven Bond blockbusters where she played a character beloved around the world. It brought her a whole new audience. How did she feel about that?

"Ooh, yes, it's heaven," she coos. "I have a lot of young chaps who ask me for autographs, who think I am a bit cool. Maybe they will come to the theatre. All I ever feel is that my job is baiting people to come to the theatre. But, yes, it's lovely to have a very young audience like that."

“I think Maggie [Maggie Smith, her close friend and Ladies in Lavender co-star, who likewise went into overdrive following the death of her husband] feels it about the Harry Potter series. It’s wonderful to have another audience. Before people used to say, ‘Could I have your autograph please? It’s for my granny’. But it’s now, ‘Could I have your autograph please for my 11 year old son!’”

Does she miss Bond after playing M for 17 years? “Do I miss him? Well he is not doing anything, but when they come to do the new film, you bet I’ll miss it!” she responds emphatically.

While Dench demurs on the subject of joining Dame Maggie on Downton Abbey — the scene-stealing 78 year-old has won two Emmys for the series — she is open to the idea of teaming up with her old friend. Dench admits there’s still plenty of life in the old girl yet.

“Acting is what keeps you going, isn’t it? It’s the motor so that you’ve got something permanently that you are trying to work out in your mind. There are constantly questions and answers that you have to make, either on your own or with other people’s assistance. It’s the interaction with other actors - that’s what’s so exciting.”

Philomena opens on Boxing Day.