Stephen Frears was a 16-year-old schoolboy the first time he laid eyes on Judi Dench. She was 22 and making her professional debut playing Ophelia in "Hamlet." Twenty-four years went by before they ever worked together, but since directing her in "Going Gently," a 1981 BBC2 teleplay, he has collaborated with her three more times -- on 1983's "Saigon: Year of the Cat;" 2005's "Mrs. Henderson Presents," for which she received Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations; and now "Philomena."
"She's been there all my life," Frears says. "She's like the queen."
She was also already attached to play "Philomena's" title character when Frears came on board to direct. Adapted by Dench's co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith's book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," it tells the true story of Lee, a young unmarried Catholic woman in 1950s Ireland who is sent to a convent when she becomes pregnant. As her penance, she is made to work in the church's laundries and given only limited access to her son, Anthony, until he is 3, when the church arranges for his adoption (in exchange for cash) by an American couple.
A half-century later, she meets former BBC journalist Sixsmith (Coogan) and tells him about the child taken from her and her unsuccessful attempts to find him. She is provincial, a devout Catholic and desperate for answers. He is worldly and irreligious, and, recognizing a good story, he agrees to help her solve the mystery.
"My friend Christine (executive producer Langan) started telling me about a script they had for me," Frears says. "She made it sound like it was a romantic comedy, then when she finally revealed it, I said, ‘You didn't tell me about any of this.'
"It was all soft Irish light. She gave me a completely false impression. She didn't say, ‘Well, there's this terrible story.' It was quite a shock."
Initially, Frears was reluctant to take on the project. He resisted taking the job for months, keeping his options open as Coogan and Pope worked on the screenplay, waiting to see if they could arrive at a tale he wanted to tell.
"When I read the script, I gave the boys a copy of ‘It Happened One Night,' " he says. "I knew it had that element in it. I knew that was there. I could see it, and that's what I liked. There was a tragedy, but there was a comedy on top of it, a sort of odd-couple film.
"I also wanted them to give me confidence that you could get through it, because it's such a delicate line (between drama and pathos). I tortured them, just saying, ‘Write it better.' Then there were other things, like when I discovered that Steve's a lapsed Catholic. I remember them talking about it, and it seemed so interesting. It then turned up in the script, and that whole business of his lapsed Catholicism -- I found that very, very interesting. It's a very good conflict between this woman's commitment to her faith and his cynicism."
The 72-year-old filmmaker points out that "Philomena" is not just the story of a mother's desperation to find her child, but how that child came to be snatched from her care in the first place in a country where church and state were closely intertwined.
"If the child was going to come to America, he needed a passport, which was given by the Dublin government on the orders of -- I think he's called the primate of Ireland -- a man called McQuaid (Archbishop John Charles McQuaid), who was clearly dreadful.
"People in the government knew, and recently the Irish government, they didn't apologize, but they acknowledged that these Magdalene Laundries had existed," Frears adds. "I don't know if they've acknowledged selling children. God, you say the words and you can't believe you're talking about it."
What happened to Philomena Lee is hardly unique. Peter Mullan's 2002 drama "The Magdalene Sisters" focused on three women similarly trapped in the Catholic laundries. "Noble," a biopic of children's rights activist Christina Noble, touches on the subject. There are many more books on the topic than Sixsmith's.
Lee may not be alone in her situation, but her story is compelling -- not just because of what transpires on her journey to America, but also for the doggedness of her years-long quest, her strength and the faith she has maintained despite the injustice handed to her by her own church. The woman Dench portrays is nobody's victim.
"When you meet the real woman, that's just not on the menu," Frears says. "What's astonishing is that you get no sense that there is a tragedy in this woman's life. She's so not bitter. She wears her suffering so lightly. She's so vigorous. She's great."