What Philomena Is Really About

Judi Dench first heard the whole astonishing story of Philomena Lee in the garden of her house in the countryside south of London. Steve Coogan read the movie script to her -- he had written it with Jeff Pope -- even doing different voices for every part.

The story had its beginnings in the government of Tony Blair and the tragedy of 9/11. Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book, was a BBC journalist until 1997 when he went to work for Blair's newly-elected government as a spin doctor. His political career turned out to be one more casualty of 9/11. He was caught up in a scandal in which a member of his staff deliberately used the tragedy to bury some bad news for the government. He left politics to become a freelance author. He was on the lookout for stories and that was how he stumbled on the tale of Philomena.

It is about an Irish single mother whose child was forcibly taken away by nuns and exported to America and about her attempts, years later, to find her lost boy.

Judi met Philomena before she started filming. She remembers saying to her, "Philomena, you have wonderful hair." She replied, "I never have the tint bottle far from me." It was a funny and very Irish response, earthy and self-deprecating. Judi recognised the style because she is Irish on her mother's side.

Being Irish, of course, means having a family that extends into the distant mists and mountains. When they were filming in Ireland a man came up to her and said, "You have cousins in this town." There they were -- lost of cousins she had never met.

The big point -- it is what makes the film work so triumphantly -- is that Philomena is a tough, brave and unshockable woman. She is also calmly determined. One big dramatic -- and very moving -- theme in the film is the contrast between her and the increasingly angry Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, who just wants to tear down the whole of the Catholic church in Ireland.

Judi takes playing real people very seriously. She regards it as a personal obligation to be honest to the life of the character. She compares Philomena to previous parts she has played -- Irish Murdoch or Queen Victoria or Elizabeth I. Unlike those, of course, Philomena was there to meet, to see her and talk to. Her character has a certain humble grandeur, but she is also human, witty and forgiving. Far from being an unsophisticated old lady, she is wordly and fully aware of modern ways. Coogan's Sixsmith is as startled as the audience by her warm liberality.

This is set against Coogan's performance as Martin Sixsmith. He has the righteous anger and impatience of a real journalist and his character is what really shines the light on the greatness of Philomena. Judi was impressed. She told him he'd have to stop being so good. If comedians can act so well, what's going to happen to full-time actors? She told me that it was the same with Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown. She told Steve it was extremely annoying and intensely irritating. She didn't mean it.

The whole film was a joyful experience for Judi, even though it is such a strong and often harrowing story. She was working again with her old friend, the director Stephen Frears.

"I think he's just spectacular," she told me, "It's what he doesn't say. I love it at the end of a shot when he says, "Want to go again?" Now I know that means he actually does want you to do another take."

The most joyful thing about the film itself was the way the story unfolded to show Philomena's quiet, deep, unshakeable faith. Many people have seen the film as crudely anti-religous or an attack on the Catholic church. That's how the Sixsmith character wants to see it, he wants the story to be a tale with a simple moral with a clear villain defeated by the good guy. But if that were true, then the story would not work at all, there would be no second act. Faith isn't the villain, just a few bigoted people who use the faith as an excuse. In Philomena, faith is, in fact, the hero.

What really makes the film is the way Philomena's faith survives the terrible ordeal intact. The film is, if anything, pro-religion. That is very important to Judi. She has her own Christian faith. She is a Quaker and has been since she was fourteen when she was sent to a Quaker boarding school. She found it fitted her character perfectly.

"It suited me down to the ground. It's very quiet, which is what I am not, and it makes you create your own form of Quakerism. It consists of sitting in silence with a lot of other people. That suits me very well because I often don't give myself the time to get all the drawers organised inside my head. It's a strength I can't do without."

So don't take any notice of people who tell you that Philomena is a polemic against the Catholic church or an anti-religous diatribe. What it's really about is the remarkable renewal of this extraordinary woman Philomena Lee's faith. It's her spirit that makes this film. It is faith that suffuses the performance of what we can all agree is one of the very greatest actors of our time, Dame Judi Dench. An Oscar? Can there be any doubt?