Judi Dench: 'Philomena wears her tragedy very lightly'

Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith

Dame Judi Dench's latest role in Philomena, about a woman who tries to find a son she was forced to give up for adoption, is already being tipped for Oscar recognition.

Judi Dench is no stranger to winning acclaim for playing real-life characters. She was Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown (1997) and a year later won an Oscar as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.

In Iris in 2001, she won a Bafta for her portrayal of celebrated English author Iris Murdoch in her battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Start Quote

I feel a huge responsibility because people know her.”

End Quote Dame Judi Dench

Earlier this year, in John Logan's new play Peter and Alice, she played Alice Liddell Hargreaves - the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Dame Judi's latest film role sees her as Philomena - an Irish Catholic woman who is still alive - whose astonishing story was first told in former BBC foreign correspondent Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

"I feel a huge responsibility because people know her and therefore they will look at the film and want to recognise Philomena in me," explains Dame Judi.

"And I hope they do," she adds. "A friend said I can't see a vestige of you in the film and I said 'you couldn't have paid me a bigger compliment'. I like nothing better than to be told that."

Dame Judi Dench (left) with Philomena Lee on the red carpet in London Dame Judi Dench (left) with Philomena Lee at the film's gala screening at the London Film Festival

In the film, directed by Stephen Frears, Philomena's story begins when she becomes pregnant as a teenager in 1952, and - regarded as "a fallen woman" - is sent to a convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary.

In the care of the nuns, Philomena works in the laundry and is allowed to see her young son, Anthony, for an hour a day. But aged three, Anthony is taken away for adoption against Philomena's will.

Having spent the next 50 years trying to track down her son, Philomena meets Sixsmith, a former director of communications for Tony Blair's Labour government as well as an ex-BBC correspondent, who realises that she has a remarkable story worth further investigation.

Sixsmith is played on screen by Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film's screenplay with Jeff Pope.

Dame Judi recalls how Coogan came to read her the script in her garden. "I've always liked the idea of someone coming and telling you the story. The moment it was over I wanted to do it straight away," she said.

What was it about Philomena's story that appealed to her?

"It's about strength, faith, fortitude and the fact that Philomena wears her tragedy very lightly and she seems quite vulnerable - and yet she has the strength of 20 people inside her."

Unlike some of her recent roles, Dame Judi had the opportunity to spend time with the real Philomena in order to develop the character.

The actress was struck by both Philomena's vulnerability and her sense of humour. "She just made me laugh. She's very vulnerable, but having read the story you know her strength is phenomenal and her faith is unbreakable."

Steve Coogan: "Comedy was a way of sugaring the pill"

Both those elements of her character are explored in the film. Dench and Coogan share several laugh-out-loud scenes, while Coogan's Sixsmith is the only one of the pair who expresses anger at the way Philomena has been treated by the church.

Dame Judi herself refuses to be drawn on how audiences might respond to Philomena. "It isn't my business to think what the outcome of it will be. My business is to be truthful to her story and her. What it evokes in people, I don't know yet."

She attributes her ability to capture Philomena's character and accent to her own Irish roots. She could imagine her mother, who was from Dublin, saying a lot of Philomena's lines.

"Had it been Danish or Dutch or German or French or Russian there is a whole lot more that I would have to have done in preparing for the film, but I did understand the Irishness of it, which actually sounds rather rude, I don't mean that. I understand that nature, because that was very much in my mother."

As awards season approaches, Dame Judi is being widely tipped as a front-runner for best actress at the Academy Awards alongside Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) and Emma Thompson (Saving Mr Banks).

It would be her seventh Oscar nomination. And according to Empire magazine, Philomena is "the British film to beat come Bafta time".

Despite all the injustices suffered by Philomena, to this day she retains her religious faith. Would Dame Judi have been so forgiving?

"No," she replies without hesitation. "I doubt if I know many people who would have been as forgiving as she is. I have a quite strong faith. I would love to think I could have been like that, but I completely doubt it."

Philomena, made by BBC Films, is out in the UK on 1 November.

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