Judi Dench: ‘Playing Philomena Was a Great Responsibility’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Actress writes about what compelled her to make the awards contender

Judi Dench, "Philomena" golden globes

Judi Dench reflects on the journey of playing Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears’ “Philomena.”

I couldn’t have enjoyed doing a film more than “Philomena” with the help of the book by Martin Sixsmith and my friend, the brilliant Stephen Frears, whom I’ve had the good fortune to work with four times before. We have a shorthand between us.

Stephen has taken great care to be very true to Philomena’s story, very true to Martin’s book. The Financial Times’ Nigel Andrews describes his style as “‘look, no hands’ masterly. He allows for full transparency, for nuance and paradox, for surprise grace-notes and deftly limned ambiguities.” I couldn’t agree more.

Before we even started filming, I met Philomena Lee herself. We had lunch, and she’s terribly funny. In order to get the true essence of someone you need to get their flavor; you have to see them and listen to them. Playing her was a great responsibility. I didn’t want to sell her short. You can do all kinds of things with Queen Victoria and Elizabeth I, but you can’t with somebody who’s standing right over your shoulder.

The film is in no way a polemic against the Catholic Church, but rather, the remarkable renewal of this extraordinary woman Philomena Lee’s faith. I wouldn’t have taken on the role if it simplified the issues or painted the Catholic Church in an unremittingly black light. These were different times for a young woman growing up in 1950s Ireland, where much of my family comes from. The church was an element of her tale and was properly examined, but it wasn’t the whole story. And that was, for me, what made the film so captivating and poignant. She had her young son taken from her and was left to wonder what had happened to him for 50 years. Philomena’s case was far from isolated. Innumerable mothers and children were torn apart and many of them are still looking for each other even now. And yet her faith is absolutely intact. This isn’t an anti-religious movie. What it’s about is somebody who, through all that, managed to keep an unshakeable faith. That’s the amazing bit of the story, and that’s the woman she is.

Anyhow, my writing about this film is a way for me to relive the great time we all had making it and how proud I am to have been a part of it.