A mother’s mission: Stephen Frears reunites with Judi Dench for heartfelt tale of ‘Philomena’

Stephen Frears’ best and most successful movies have gotten him thisclose to the Best Director Oscar—The Queen in 2006 and The Grifters in 1991—and these are indicative of the two different worlds in which he functions: the fact and the fiction.

Although he counts himself, first and last, a director of fiction films and, indeed, holds the “David Lean Chair in Fiction Direction” from the National Film and Television School in Beanconsfield, England, the reality is the English director has been doing an inordinate amount of truth-telling in his cinematic storytelling of late.

His latest, Philomena, opens with the ominous words “Inspired by True Events,” and his next—slugged Untitled Lance Armstrong Biopic—gamely goes after the Texas cyclist and the performance-enhancement drugs that made him racing’s rock star.

Frears’ TV flicks include the recent Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which recounts the legal pounding the boxer took to stay out of the Vietnam War, and The Deal, which purports to depict the covert arrangement that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made over who would become leader of the Labour Party in 1994, which dovetailed into The Queen, some big-screen speculation on how Blair and Elizabeth II dealt with the death of Princess Diana and the problems of protocol it created for the monarchy.

“I can see these films coming from real life, and I don’t quite know why,” the 72-year-old director admits. “But it’s a false heading, because I’m a fiction director or at least a combination of real life and a little bit of fiction that makes it interesting.” 

Another unreal illusion that can be drawn from Frears facts is that he has inherited George Cukor’s unique niche of being a woman’s director: He has directed one actress to an Oscar (Helen Mirren for The Queen) and five more to Oscar nominations (Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer for Dangerous Liaisons, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening for The Grifters, and Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents)—possibly six, if you heed the buzz attending La Dench’s Philomena, now in limited release from The Weinstein Company.

“I’m lucky with actors, generally because I don’t have enough money to rent famous ones. If you’ve worked with the actors I’ve worked with, you count your blessings.”

Philomena is short—sensibly short in terms of not spilling T.M.I. that might be off-putting to modern-day audiences—for The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a nonfiction 2009 bestseller by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith about tracking down an elderly Irish woman’s son whom she had been forced to surrender to adoption a half-century earlier. The journey stretches from County Tipperary to London to Washington and, bitterly, back to the place where it all began: the Roscrea convent. Heartbreak and even a quite literal dead-end at almost every stop, and still the journalist and the granny press on, her face sparkling with happiness at any news of her son.

Such a whopping serving of unabashed mother love hasn’t been dished up since Hollywood’s infancy when East Lynne, Madame X and Stella Dallas ruled the tear ducts. Three factors keep Philomena from falling into a bottomless pit of movie goo.

Frears is first. He pushed and pulled the screenplay to get it into something that expanded the humanity and humor of both characters. “I took quite a long time to agree to direct this film,” Frears admits. “I thought the idea of a tragedy, with a sort of romantic comedy on top of it, very intriguing. Then I got more and more interested in things like Steve’s lapsed Catholicism and Judi’s rock-solid faith.” It became The Odd Couple with widely different religious agendas on a road trip.

“Steve wrote it with his partner, Jeff Pope, so it’s hard to work out who wrote what, but what was interesting was that he found so much in this story to identify with and so much related to his own experiences and his own lack of Catholicism.”

Another saving grace was the fact that this largely tragic trek had a bright, light buoyancy to it—likely the doings of co-adapter Coogan, who fed himself a fair share of clever lines (including a nasal-clearing, anti-Church expletive, which resonates and echoes in the hearts of most of the audience). He lightened the load a lot!

“It always seemed to me,” seconds Frears, “that the humor made the story more interesting and, possibly, more tragic. It’s quite easy to make a depressing film—and, God knows, this tragedy was enough. I believe the humor elevated it.”

Coogan has called Frears a pretty tough taskmaster, always insisting the script wasn’t quite there. “We had to court him, and he really made us work for it,” the actor has said. Eventually, when Coogan issued an ultimatum that the film would be made with him or without him, the director caved in and said, “Oh, all right.”

Frears’ insistence that they capitalize on the contrast in the two characters, for both comedic and dramatic effect, paid dividends when Philomena world-premiered at the Palazzo del Cinema in the competition strand of the Venice Film Festival and waltzed off with Best Screenplay honors. It also went down well at Toronto’s fest.

Coogan’s life-sized portrayal of Sixsmith, subtle and deeply nuanced, is in sharp contrast to his broader screen work—something that he readily credits to Frears’ holding him in check and not letting his performance ever “get too big.”

The director pooh-poohs that compliment. “Steve’s a man of high intelligence. He knew perfectly well what he had to do.” Besides, he adds rather wickedly, “If you’re playing with Dame Judi Dench, you know you have to behave yourself.”

The third thing that saves Philomena from tripping and falling into maudlin excesses is Dench’s earnest, exquisite work as the title character, a simple soul content to stay in her Washington, D.C. hotel room and watch Big Momma’s House rather than visit the Lincoln Memorial and other touristy indulgences. And the banging together of the believer and the non-believer generates considerable fun and fascination.

What’s it like to direct Judi Dench? “Easy,” Frears replies simply. “She’s very, very good in this picture, too—a great, great actress and a great, great woman.”

As for the unexpected star-teaming of Dench and Coogan, “I thought this seemed rather good chemistry, in sort of an old-fashioned way, and then it turned out to be good chemistry. But, you know, it’s a gamble every time you cast a movie.”

Frears is such an eclectic director he is constantly confusing the auteur critics who leave little leeway for versatility. How, they wonder, can the man who directed archetypal indies like My Beautiful Laundrette, Liam, Tamara Drewe, Dirty Pretty Things, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, The Van, The Snapper and Prick Up Your Ears reverse engines and go commercial with High Fidelity, The Hi-Lo Country, Hero and Mary Reilly? “Variety used to be grounds for celebration,” he shrugs contentedly.

Frears, who took the BBC route into features like Mike Leigh, seems surprised to be in his chosen profession. “When I was a child, I didn’t know who directors were. There were films and film stars. Directors, for me, weren’t invented until the ’50s. I think Hitchcock was the first. Then my years at university coincided with the great explosion of European cinema and the increasing self-consciousness of cinema—the French films, the Italian films, the Swedish films, the Czech films. Then I went to work with Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, who were a part of the great change in British cinema. It was never that I saw a perfect film and said ‘This is for me.’”

Frears doesn’t own a divining rod that leads him from picture to picture. It’s all a mystery to him, he professes. “I just read something and think it’s interesting. I read a review of Tyler Hamilton’s book [The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France], and it sounded interesting. I have no idea what the film is turning out to be, but something gets you to this point. It’s like falling in love.”

Odds are he’s on the right track here. “The Secret Race isn’t just a game changer for the Lance Armstrong myth,” observes Outside magazine. “It’s the game ender."