Give this woman the Oscar immediately. No, she doesn’t have to travel into space or put up with Woody Allen, but Dame Judi Dench has delivered the most heartfelt and beautiful performance of the year.
Dench was previously rewarded by the Academy for a supporting role in Shakespeare in Love, but Philomena is surely the high-point of a stellar career. She is the captivating focus of virtually every scene in this excellent film and well-worthy of her first Oscar for a starring role.
Playing an estranged mother who was forced to give up her baby for adoption as a Catholic teenager in Ireland, she captures the agony of losing a child but electrifies the movie with an irresistible sense of humor. Speaking after a screening at the London Film Festival, Dench said that mischievous humor came directly from Philomena Lee, the woman whose story is told in the film. They met before filming began because Dench wanted to understand the emotional toll of the trauma. She was surprised to discover another side of the woman. “She made me laugh a lot,” Dench said. “She made me laugh a huge amount.”
As a teenager in 1952, Lee became pregnant and was immediately sent to a convent in Roscrea, County Limerick. On arrival, she was interrogated by the nuns—“Did you take your knickers down?” —who then oversaw the birth of her son, unaided by medical professionals or painkillers. “The pain is her penance,” says one of them, amid the screams of labor.
At the age of three, the boy is taken from her and Lee agrees to sign a document promising that she will never again contact him. Fifty years later, she breaks that pledge and joins forces with a journalist as they try to uncover what became of her son. The film charts that journey which takes them to the U.S. as Lee remains calm and forgiving, while the journalist she has just met, played by Steve Coogan, rails at the injustice of what was done to her by the Catholic Church.
“I would like to think that in those circumstances I would have behaved like that,” said Dench. “But I know I wouldn’t have done. I think that is what the film is about, it’s the power of forgiveness. We know how children were abducted and taken away—what is so extraordinary is how these two people come through something like that. I think she’s one of the most considerable people I’ve ever met.”
The actress conceded that knowing that the person you were portraying would soon be watching the film was an added pressure. “I felt quite a responsibility when I played Elizabeth I, but nobody remembers her. Then I felt a responsibility when I played Queen Victoria, and not many people remember her. I felt a huge responsibility when I played Iris [Murdoch] because a lot of people remember her and now I have Philomena: who’s right there!”
“The most traumatic thing for me was when we had the wrap party. We were all sitting around and I was talking to Philomena and then they suddenly said, ‘And here’s a bit of the film’. And Philomena was sitting next to me with her hand on my shoulder.
“I can’t remember anything about that bit of film, all I remember is when the little boy came on I heard her say, ‘Ah, God love him, look at him’. And I was terribly aware of her hand on my shoulder.”
Coogan, who co-wrote the script as well as playing Martin Sixsmith, said he was relieved to report that Lee was “happy” with the outcome. “She felt she was dignified by the film,” he said. He had also met Lee several times while he was working on the screenplay and said one of the most arresting moments in the film was adapted from one of their conversations. “There’s a scene in the film where Judi grabs my hand and says: I did love him you know,” he said. “That’s actually something that happened, we watched some footage Philomena hadn’t seen for 50 years and she reached across and said that to me.”
Stephen Frears, who directed the film, said he had been immediately taken by the story, which was first told in a book written by Sixsmith.
“On top of this tragic story, it’s a romantic story,” he said. “It always seemed very interesting, very moving, and very funny. What more do people want?”