The Tribune (SLO) - - Ticket - BY JILL LAW­LESS

Judi Dench is back in the world of es­pi­onage – but her lat­est role is a far cry from James Bond’s un­flap­pable spy chief, M.

In the new movie “Red Joan,” Dench plays an el­derly British woman whose quiet sub­ur­ban life is up­ended when po­lice come knock­ing to ac­cuse her of pass­ing nu­clear se­crets to the So­viet Union dur­ing the Cold War.

An in­dig­nant Joan in­sists she has done noth­ing wrong. But as she is ques­tioned, flash­backs re­veal a com­plex tale of love, loy­alty and mis­placed ide­al­ism.

Dench played M in seven Bond films, from “Gold­en­eye” to “Sky­fall.” She says she is fas­ci­nated by spies, who are of­ten first-rate ac­tors.

An en­dur­ing source of in­trigue for Dench is the “Cam­bridge Spies,” a group of high-rank­ing British in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers that fed in­for­ma­tion to the So­viet Union for years. The dou­ble agents, who in­cluded one-time MI6 coun­teres­pi­onage chief Kim Philby, fended off sus­pi­cion with up­per­class charm.

“There’s some footage of Kim Philby meet­ing the press at a flat and say­ing ‘Of course I’m not (a spy), you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick,’ ” Dench told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a phone in­ter­view. “It’s the most won­der­ful bit of act­ing you can pos­si­bly see.” She rec­om­mends the clip to young ac­tors for study.

Di­rected by stage and film vet­eran Trevor Nunn, “Red Joan” is based on the true story of “Granny Spy” Melita Nor­wood, a civil ser­vant liv­ing in the Lon­don sub­urbs who passed nu­clear se­crets to Moscow for decades. When she was ex­posed in 1999 at the age of 87, she ex­pressed no re­grets, say­ing she would do it all again.

The fic­tional char­ac­ter of the movie’s ti­tle is Joan Stan­ley. Played as a young woman by Sophie Cook­son, she is a bright physics stu­dent in wartime Cam­bridge who be­comes in­volved with the quest for an atomic bomb, and with a charis­matic rev­o­lu­tion­ary (Tom Hughes).

Dench says Joan is con­vinced she is act­ing in the name of peace, by “evening up” the nu­clear arms race.

“Af­ter Hiroshima she said, if every­body had the same ar­ma­ments, it wouldn’t hap­pen. It would pre­vent the other side from us­ing them,” Dench said.

Then “she just got on with her sub­ur­ban life, and it ob­vi­ously hadn’t oc­curred to her that it was an act of trea­son.”

Dench feels some sym­pa­thy for Joan’s ar­gu­ment. She can re­call the early Cold War years, when the hor­rors of World War II were still fresh and the prospect of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion seemed all too real.

Dench was 5 years old when war broke out in 1939 and re­mem­bers hud­dling at the bot­tom of the stairs as her home city of York in north­ern Eng­land was bombed.

As a young ac­tress, she protested against nu­clear weapons, though was never a big po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist like some con­tem­po­raries.

“I re­mem­ber sit­ting in Trafal­gar Square dur­ing Ban the Bomb, with Vanessa Red­grave,” Dench said. “I think Vanessa got ar­rested and had to say to the po­lice, ‘You can’t ar­rest me, I’ve got a mati­nee to­day.’ ”

Now 84, Dench shows no sign of re­tir­ing, though she is picky about the parts she ac­cepts.

“I don’t want to play any­body who is my age and is drop­ping off the perch,” she said firmly. “The last thing I want to play is some­body who’s be­ing looked af­ter in a care home.”

Her re­cent work de­fies type­cast­ing. Dench re­cently played Wil­liam Shake­speare’s wife, Anne Hath­away, in Ken­neth Branagh’s “All is True.” Next up, she’ll be Old Deuteron­omy in Tom Hooper’s big-screen adap­ta­tion of the mu­si­cal “Cats.”

The film of­fered Dench the chance to make up for a bit of past bad luck. She was cast in the 1981 stage pro­duc­tion of An­drew Lloyd Web­ber’s feline hit, but had to drop out.

“I snapped my Achilles’ ten­don, so they delayed the open­ing,” she said. “And then when we went to the New Lon­don (the­ater) to ac­tu­ally open it, I was in plas­ter and I fell off the stage. So I knew then that my num­ber was up.

“So it was nice to come back in a circle and be part of it. It didn’t put me off ‘Cats’ for life.”


Judi Dench stars as the ti­tle spy in “Red Joan.”

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