Philomena Lee's story begins when at a very young age, she gives birth to a boy out of wedlock, naming him Anthony. The baby was the result of a relationship that didn't last, so Philomena ends up in a home for single mothers, Roscrea Convent, in Ireland. There she lives with other single mothers, and they are only given one hour each day to spend with their children. The rest of the hours are spent washing and cleaning and doing other chores.
One day an American couple shows up to the home and takes two children with them. One of the children is Philomena's son, Anthony, the other child is Mary, the daughter of her best friend. Fifty years later, and now mother to an adult daughter, Philomena thinks about Anthony every day, wondering what happened to him. Her daughter mentions her story to Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, who co-writer of this film), a disgraced ex-government official who is attempting to become a journalist, and is looking for a story to write about. He discusses Philomena's story with his editor, and she agrees that it would be a good human interest story to write about.
Martin meets with Philomena to get more information from her about her son, and to find out if she would allow him to write an article about it. Philomena, however, doesn't have much information to give him, so together they go to the creepy Roscrea and attempt to get Philomena's records. They are told by the very stern headmistress and nuns that all the records had burned in a fire years ago. Drinking at a local pub, they meet a man who tells them that he had heard rumors that years ago the convent sold babies to American couples. Thus begins Philomena's and Martin's journey to find out what exactly happened to Anthony.
This journey takes them to America where Martin uses his contacts there to get more information. Very soon, he discovers that the couple who adopted Anthony (Doc and Marge Hess) renamed him Michael, and that Michael Hess is a high-ranking official in the Republican party in the Reagan administration, gay and closeted. Sixsmith also discovers more information about Michael that he reluctantly has to tell Philomena. As disturbing as the news is, they agree to press on and meet the many people who knew Michael. This includes Mary, the girl who was taken by the same family all those years ago, and Michael's former partner.
Philomena, based on the true story of Philomena Lee, is a touching and well-written film, and Dench is perfectly cast as Philomena. She is a woman so determined, strong-willed, and forgiving, that she practically makes the nuns look evil. Look for Dench to be nominated for acting awards for this film.
Coogan, in a brilliant move, cast himself as the former wonk turned journalist. But it is the script, by Coogan, that is the best thing about this film. Coogan has some very good lines, lines that are at times sarcastic and biting, even when he is with Philomena. And Philomena, in turn, is given very good lines herself, lines that explain her grief but also her determination. Their journey brings them close, despite being two very different people from two very different backgrounds. It is a journey and a story that should be seen by everyone.
Following are excerpts from the Philomena press conference, held last month in London.
Steve Coogan: I initially didn't want to write it. I thought it was an interesting story and I think I want to pursue it. I was told to write it but I told the producers that I am better with comedy and not drama, and they said that I need someone good to write it with, so they introduced me to Jeff Pope. Now we are bestest bestest friends. It was a real revelation. I learned from him and we collaborated in the two cents. We both brought different things to it. Jeff would talk about the structure of the whole thing and the rhythm, and I was more about the myopic detail of character and dialogue. So we both had distinct roles. It was as much fun writing as it was acting.
Judi Dench: The story was read to me, and immediately I wanted to do it, before there was really any tweaking to the script. You have only have to hear the story and hear about Philomena. That is irresistible to play.
Question: Did you have any sense of responsibility to portray these people on the big screen?
JD: That is a very good question. The only thing that concerns me when I'm playing somebody who is alive, I played Iris Murdock who had not long died, responsibility very very heavy on my shoulders, and I feel with this film, as long as you tell Philomena's story, and it were true to her, which Jeff and Steve had already done by writing the story, we must not sell her short. She is a most remarkable woman, and all my concern was that we must be absolutely true to her story. I know her, I met her before we started filming, I haven't seen her since she has seen the film. I can't wait for later today to see how she feels about the film.
Question: You bring such emotional depth to your character, and I easily got lost in your performance. Being a mother yourself, how did that influence your performance.
JD: Well, um, everything, every part that you approach, has to be somehow rooted in yourself, you have to somehow root everything, so that it is not just words that are coming out of your mouth. Straight in and goes out again. So that every experience, that you experience yourself, you use. Because that is our craft. So having a daughter and a grandson I could certainly relate to the fact that this child who you simple dote on being taken away from you at an early age, and every single kind of emotion has to go through. I once said this to somebody when I was playing Lady McBeth, they said that's tricky, what do you about murdering your husband's cousin. How do you approach that? And there are of course things that are not in your personal repertoire that you have to personally understand reading and watching other things and hearing other people talk about them. So that everything is relatable I suppose, but then having sad that, that is not the story, I then have relate it back to Philomena. It is quite a tangled kind of piece of string that touches all sorts of parts, and in the end you can map to something that is as near the truth to the person that you can possibly manage.
Question: What did you learn from each other that surprised you?
SC: When we were writing it, Judi was number one on our wish list and our wish came true, um, but when it came time to filming it, we weren't sure who was going to play Martin but in the end I decided that it would be best that I did. And but of course I was very nervous. One was if I was able to share the screen with this iconic figure sitting next to me (Dench) and uh that I knew that I would have to um, bring my, um, pull my socks up, pull my finger out, pull lots of things, and um, and, but when I was on set it was great because Judi and I didn't spend a lot of times anxiously talking about the subtext of the script, most of the time we talked about everything but what we were doing. It is quite a heavy difficult subject matter, it was a relief to talk about anything but the script. There was a lot of laughing, a lot of laughter.
SC: But you know it was it was very relaxed, and there was lots of, and in terms of what Judi said about the comedy in actual fact in this film I actually played the straight man. All the funny, um, lines I gave to Judi, because it made me look generous and her look funny.
Q: Jeff Pope (co-writer with Steve Coogan) spoke about your passion for the project, I wondered where that passion came from? Your parents acted as foster parents when you were a kid. I wonder if it came from there.
SC: All those things you mentioned played a part in my being interested, I think because I am Irish, because I was raised Catholic, I felt that I had some license to talk about it and avoid the cliches because there are a lot of cliches, and um, its true, my family are, still, some of them are still very devout catholics, and not, and in a way I sort of wanted to, from a writing point of view, wanted to address in a grown up way and in a way that was very um about , really , tolerance and understanding, and learning to live and love with people who have different points of view. Part of that is where I am from, in fact, I was raised a Catholic, even though I am not one now, a lot of the values I have are because of my family's upbringing, things that are very important, which I value very highly. Certainly my personal experience plays a part, formed the dialogue.
SF: When we were at the Venice Film Festival we won the prize for the best Catholic film. We also won the prize for the best atheist film.
SC: And the best Gay film.
SF: Yes, Yes. Best queer, Catholic, atheist film. We had a lot of competition.
Q: You authored the Irish Accent perfectly on the big screen which is normally butchered. What was the secret to your success.
JD: The secret of my success is my mother, who is from Dublin, and all my relations are in Dublin, or in Malanslo in the west, or as I found out, we went to Ross Trevor to film, in Northern Ireland, and we did some shots, and I got out while they just changed the cars around, and this man said to me, you know, you have cousins in this town, he said that they are coming over to see you in any minute. I'm sorry we didn't go to a lot more places, we could've found more cousins. So that was good. It was entirely, entirely, my father who was also brought up in Dublin, his family, in Trinity, and all my cousins sent to Trinity so that's my, that's my link, very nice of you to say so. But that's my link. And I also have a dresser, who I have had for 40 years, from Ireland, called Annie Hoowie, and she also was a tremendous link for anything. She once said this breathtaking thing to me, she said , I was in, in Nova Scotia, making The Shipping News, and she was minding my house for me, and I rang her, and she said 'Ah Hello', and I said 'Hi Annie, is everything alright there, and she said, 'ah, it is all grand here. What time is it there.' What time is it. 20 past 5 in the afternoon. And she said, 'what time would that make it here?' and so there is this kind of essence, you know, between my mom who is also very funny, and Annie.