In her latest role, Dame Judi Dench plays a woman who spent half a century searching for her son after he was sold by nuns. She and the mother she portrays, Philomena Lee, speak to Susan Griffin.
Not many people will see themselves portrayed on screen by one of the country’s great acting talents, but an Irishwoman by the name of Philomena Lee can lay claim to that feat.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Lee, of hearing that Dame Judi Dench had been cast to play her. “I like you in the Bond films and I like As Time Goes By with Geoffrey Palmer,” she says, turning to a smiling Dench who’s sitting to her left.
“I was always watching that, repeat after repeat. I’d sit there with my cup of tea,” she adds, chuckling.
Although the two women have only met a handful of times they have a natural rapport, with Dench, looking chic in a cream suit and embroidered scarf, protectively touching Lee’s forearm as they talk about the movie Philomena.
It’s a tragic tale and, unfortunately, not an incredibly rare one for women like Lee who, as an unmarried teenager in Fifties Ireland, fell pregnant and was disowned by her family.
She was sent to a convent to have her baby, before being made to ‘repay’ the nuns by working in the laundry.
Lee was given one precious hour a day with her son Anthony and then, when he was three years old, he was taken from the convent without her authority (she later discover he’d been sold to an American family), and Lee spent the next 50 years trying in vain to establish his whereabouts.
Through a lucky set of circumstances, she met journalist Martin Sixsmith who arranged a visit to the US to find out what had happened to him. The movie follows these two very different people as they embark on an extraordinary road trip.
“It’s a wonderful film,” says the dark-haired Lee, who looks elegant in a purple skirt and blouse and whose banter and demeanour belie the fact she’s 80 years old. “Judi does it justice. What a lady.”
Although Lee’s story was turned into a book called The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Sixsmith, Dench admits she wasn’t aware of the story before receiving the script.
“Steve [Coogan, who produced, co-wrote and stars in the movie as Sixsmith] came to my home and read it to me and I immediately I wanted to do it,” says 78-year-old Dench.
The first thing she wanted to do was meet the woman she’d be playing. “We met for lunch, didn’t we, just before we started filming,” says the actress, looking at Lee before admitting how’very difficult’ it is to portray someone real - and still living.
“One’s concern is to do credit and justice to the person you play. And that’s why we met because unless you have a kind of essence of the person, you don’t know the sieve that all the things have got to go through. And she made me laugh so much.”
Lee smiles in response. “Did I?” she asks. “Well, that’s the trouble with being Irish!”
Although Lee’s story has now been transferred to the big screen, it wasn’t an easy decision for her to go public with a secret she’d kept to herself for half a century (on what would’ve been Anthony’s 50th birthday, she finally told her two children).
Philomena marks the fourth time Dench has united with director Stephen Frears. “I love working with him, he’s just supreme to work with,” she says.
“He hardly says anything but he doesn’t need to, you get the gist of it!”
Dench too hopes the movie may act as some form of comfort for those who had similar experiences, but she also believes it’s testament to one woman’s courage.
“I think the story is about Philomena’s faith and strength and I think it’s completely remarkable,” she says.