Sir Ian. Sir Laurence. Her Most Eminent Ladyship Dame Maggie. American entertainment journalists love to invoke the national titles of honour bestowed on British actors over the decades. One title absolutely delights me though because it feels so right: I refer, of course to Dame Judi, born Judith Olivia Dench in 1934 and knighted for services to the performing arts in 1988. Everything works in that expressive honorific combo of Dame (both a title of respect and a description of a classy lady) and Judi (unfussy, brisk, down-to-earth): Dench is a star exactly because of that blend of class and realness.
Judi Dench is among the era’s great actors. On her home turf, she has been one of the UK’s stage greats for years, an eminent Shakespearean and a divine television sitcom player. She made for a smashing spy boss as M in seven James Bond movies from GoldenEye to Skyfall, but she is just the lady a director likes to cast when it comes time for a smart, pert take on Oscar Wilde or a project based on Jane Austen. No wonder the Judi Dench fan club ranges from young to old and back again: the object of our affection has a verve that older audiences aspire to (watch her go for the gusto in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). And yet she charms younger audiences with the combination of authority and bright wit projected in her distinctive voice.
Now that voice – the tone of a woman who knows her own mind – has put the actor in the thick of movie-award hubbub as Dame Judi shares an Oscar nomination in the category of best actress in a leading role for her work in Philomena. It is her fifth nomination in the category since 1998. (Nominated twice as a supporting actress as well, she won in 1999 for Shakespeare In Love.) The key to her popularity with both critics and the public is that she is just as protean a performer as the formidable Meryl Streep, but she does her morphing the British way. She hides in plain sight without drawing attention to her craft.
In period costume on stage or on screen, to play Lady Bracknell, say, or Queen Victoria, or every Shakespearean role known to womankind, Dame Judi is appropriately wigged up in tendrils and ribbons and buns. But in fact she is best known on screen and off for her chic, short cap of a coif. These days the colour is a variation on gray, white and silver. But the look – stylish, low-maintenance, fresh – has been hers for decades, recognisable to millions from her days of telly stardom on the British sitcom As Time Goes By, which ran with phenomenal success from 1992-2005. It’s hard to imagine her otherwise.
The odds are not in Dench’s favour to take home that best actress Oscar for Philomena – at least not if you put stock in the theory that Cate Blanchett has the lock on the gold-plated hardware for her undeniably great performance in Blue Jasmine. But the word ‘lose’ is a poor choice when it comes to acting awards. ‘Didn’t happen to win this time’ is closer to the truth. And even that locution doesn’t do justice to the accolades due to Dame Judi for her equally Oscar-worthy performance in Philomena – a creation of commanding integrity, full commitment and understated control that downplays her own importance to the success of a tonally and morally complex project.
Philomena is a thoughtful, serious but blessedly ungloomy (and even, at times, buoyantly funny) drama about human grace and religious faith in the face of sometimes overwhelming institutional imperfection. It is about the journey of an aging Irish woman trying to find out what happened to the son she gave birth to half a century earlier, before losing all contact when nuns forcibly removed the boy and profited from his adoption by an American family. Back then Philomena was frightened, unwed, teenaged and Roman Catholic. When we meet her in aging adulthood as played by Dench, she is a Roman Catholic still. She has a forthright faith, despite her misfortunes, that confounds Steve Coogan as the journalist who helps her investigate her son’s fate.
For an added degree of difficulty the actual Philomena Lee, on whose story the movie is based, is real and living. But with her characteristic mixture of poise and matter-of-factness, Ms Dench simultaneously applies a lifetime of experience in theatrical transformation and gets out of the way of the character she becomes. In doing so, she creates a specific woman who feels very real in her human proportions of sadness, hope, anger, forgiveness, humour and even, yes, serenity.
Philomena Lee is inspiring. And Judi Dench is a marvel – a heavy-duty artist who projects the lightness of someone who knows herself and therefore enjoys others. What a dame.