|Judi Dench at the BAFTAs at the Royal Opera House in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
At the age of 78, Dame Judi Dench has become a supreme actor, as is evidenced by her wonderful playing in the new Stephen Frears movie Philomena.
Of course, she has always been wonderful; she was wonderful when I first saw her on the London stage playing the ingenue Shakepearean roles, Juliet, and the others. But when I saw the marvellous warmth and passion she brought to the role of the elderly woman who had been forced by some Irish nuns to give up the child she bore as a teenager, and who embarked on a search for that boy, of whom she had never heard anything in 50 years, I was made to think of those old Japanese actors who are considered too young to play the greatest roles until they are virtually in their dotage. She brought a lifetime of experience --- and her experience of life as well as of the stage, has been broad and varied, as a search of Wikipedia makes clear --- to this old woman, and she was so obviously a complete person, confident under her air of modesty and lack of assertion, that she brought a lump into my throat, tears into my eyes very early in the film, and they remained there until the final shot.
Dench is co-starred in this movie by Steve Coogan, a good-looking youngish man, formerly a stand-up comedian, whose work I had never previously seen. He was excellent in the role of a journalist whose paper was ready to finance Philomena’s search for her lost son, but more than that, he along with another writer whose work was unknown to me, Jeff Pope, wrote the excellent screenplay that turned this true story into such a gripping drama. Philomena, as presented, was both a naif, a practising and believing Catholic woman, and a woman of the world, having spent most of her life as a practising nurse, in which capacity she had seen and experienced much of what might be called the seamier side of life. But the character played by Coogan, Martin Sexsmith, was her perfect foil, a man who had worked his way through religious belief, and had taken on much of the cynicism that comes from the journalistic life and atititude to life. As they set out on the search they were an odd couple, warily respectful of each other, with Philomena liable at any time to change her mind about the whole search unless her companion played his cards with special care.
She wanted to know one thing: had her son ever thought about her during his life.
Sexsmith quickly tracked the boy down, discovered that he had been taken by his adoptive parents to the United States, and had become an adviser to President Reagan and to later Republican presidents. Philomena had already been told by the nuns that they did not know anything about what had happened to the child, but when she heard he was in the United s/tates, and especially since Sexsmith’s sponsoring journal was ready to pay the costs, she agreed to go across the Atlantic in search of the answer to her question.
Their mission had many ups and downs, came close to being broken or called off, two or three times, and it had a sensational ending the details of which I had better not reveal here. Sufficient to say that the non-religious reporter and the faithful elderly woman combined at the end, and, very satisfactorily from my point of view, were able to maintain their basic atitudes until the bitter end.
Speaking of which, there is another remarkable few moments from another actress I remember seeing as a young girl in the 1950s, Barbara Jefford, playing a cameo role as an elderly nun pouring out the bitterness that had accumulated in her during the many years of deprivation in the cause of her faith. What an amazing cameo, what a powerful demonstration of the acting art!
Excellent though Coogan was in his role, I am sure even he would acknowledge that the film was made by the peerless playing of Judi Dench, who managed in one close-up after another, to indicate the waves of emotion, the surges of rage and disappointment that overcame her, just by what passed on her mobile, beautiful old face.
What a supreme actress she has become, this lovely young girl I remember seeing as Juliet so many, many years ago. No wonder she has been heaped with honours by her native country.