The veteran UK director and master of humanist storytelling talks Philomena and his long partnership with Judi Dench.
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28 Nov 2013 - 4:14 PM  UPDATED 28 Nov 2013 - 4:14 PM

In Venice, to thunderous applause, Dame Judi Dench glided into the crowded press conference room on the arm of her gallant director, Stephen Frears, who had made an extra special effort to look colourful by wearing a flaming red t-shirt. The world's first screening of their film, Philomena, brought back memories of The Queen seven years earlier, when Helen Mirren had made a grand entrance onto the same Venice stage to a similar reception alongside Frears.

We have worked with each other more than anybody else and we were both startled to realise that

Mirren, of course, went on to win every acting award going, first Venice's Silver Lion and then the two biggies in America, the Oscar and the SAG (Screen Actors Guild, as voted by her peers). This year's Venice jury, headed by Bernardo Bertolucci, left Dench out of the awards, favouring Elena Cotta as best actress for the Italian film, A Street in Palermo. Though as Peter Morgan had won the screenwriting award for The Queen, Philomena scribes Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope won for Philomena.

When Philomena moved on to Toronto (The Queen never did), the audience queues were longer than I've ever seen and in the all-important People's Choice Award, the film went on to be voted second after red-hot Oscar favourite, 12 Years A Slave. While the latter film is a gruelling, engrossing experience, Philomena, with its searingly funny dialogue, is a deeply moving film that's impossible not to love.

“I think there is something which touches people in some quite profound way,” remarked a visibly happy Frears, who tends to be grumpy when his films suffer the other fate. “It may be that it's an attack on cynicism, which audiences like to see. It's astonishing that people don't make films about faith anymore since it's clearly a large part of the lives of many, many people.”

Inspired by Martin Sixsmith's 2009 non-fiction novel, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Frears' film follows Sixmith's former journalist as he uncovers a young unwed mother's treatment in the hands of the Catholic Church at an Irish convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary, in 1952. Philomena had fallen pregnant as a teenager and after giving birth was forced to spend three years in the convent, slaving in the laundries while also caring for her son, Anthony. Anthony was then adopted by an American couple as part of a baby trade of supposed orphans, the convent's biggest source of income in the '50s when the going rate was between UK£500 and UK £1,500, according to Sixsmith. The Mother Superior threatened the terrified Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word. She didn't, well not for half a century.

The action follows Philomena, who, having not seen her son in 50 years, travels with Sixsmith (Coogan) to find him in America. Incredibly, Lee, a simple Irish woman, does not hold a grudge against the Catholic Church, even if her daughter Jane, who first sought out Sixsmith, does. Frears is keen for the film to open up a discussion. Three times during the film's Venice press conference he said he wants Pope Francis to see the film.

“From all I've read about him, he seems good news. So it sounds as though he wants to change things. Well, good for him!”

Like Woody Allen, over the years Frears' films have been hits and misses, with his previous film, 2012's Lay the Favourite, going straight to DVD here. There was a certain laziness about the film as there was about 2010's Tamara Drewe. Interestingly, they were both comedies. Frears says he has a strong batting average overall and nobody can deny that his '80s run with The Hit (1984), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Prick Up Your Ears, (1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Grifters (1990) was astounding. He made something of a comeback with 2000's High Fidelity before scoring his biggest box office success with The Queen.

The director says he did some of his best work early in his career making socially-oriented films with Allan Bennett, Tom Stoppard and David Hare for BBC television, and he has long maintained that television is where the big audience lies. When we first met two decades ago in Cannes for The Snapper, he pointed out that more people saw the film in one night on telly than had seen any of his films.

Philomena meant a lot to Frears in part because he was re-teaming with Dench. They'd started out on television with Going Gently for BBC2's Playhouse series, then came the David-Hare scripted 1983 telemovie Saigon: Year of the Cat about the fall of Saigon, while in 2005 they made the cinema feature, Mrs Henderson Presents.

“We have worked with each other more than anybody else and we were both startled to realise that,” Frears notes in Venice. “I realised that two days ago and I think she did one day ago.”

Does he have to direct her? “Of course not,” he replies bluntly. “I am like Woody Allen. You hire these very, very skilful people, then the best thing to do is shut up.”

Of course, the 72-year-old, who is still as sharp as a tack, does far more than that.

“What you are really doing is creating a sort of world. I remember Helen being very aware that you had to create a world in which she could give her performance. You build the foundations around her, maybe it was the same, but I was less aware of it with Judy. I don't know what I contribute. They trust me and I trust them. Helen said there are four things a director has to say, 'louder', 'softer', 'faster', 'slower'. It seems to me perfectly good advice.”

How would he compare Mirren and Dench as actors? “I wouldn't go down that road. I wouldn't put one foot on that road.”

Frears has proved deft at presenting portrayals of real life people even if he doesn't always meet them. “I didn't want to talk to The Queen. It's more interesting to do it from your imagination,” he says. Frears did finally come face to face with the reigning British monarch after The Queen was made. “I'm not telling you what she said,” he notes gruffly.

He has no intention of trying to meet Lance Armstrong for his upcoming biopic starring Ben Foster. “There's so much material out there in the public domain,” he notes. Though, he did meet Philomena Lee, as did Dench and Coogan.

Dench: “I can only say that I can't imagine myself being in that position of having all that happen to me and being able to forgive. I don't have that scope of humanity that Philomena has. But it's what makes the story worth telling.”

Coogan: “When I asked Philomena if she forgave the nuns, her daughter Jane, [who had originally contacted Sixsmith] replied, 'I don't!' So I thought it was important to reflect that point of view as well. It was important to voice both reactions: the real human reaction and the slightly more dignified response.”

Frears: “When it came to casting Steve I said to Martin, 'You are a good sport allowing Steve to play you'. Steve is much more outrageous and with a sense of the ridiculous. Martin Sixsmith is now a rather distinguished historian.” Ultimately, Coogan is a revelation in the film and brings his own sense of cynicism to the story, as does Frears.

John Hodge has written Frears' untitled Armstrong movie. What angle are they taking? “He's a complex character, that's wants interesting about him,” the typically non-committal director replies.

Would meeting him make a difference? “When you make films about real people you have a sort of obligation to be fair to them. I imagine that he is very…,” he pauses. “Well, everyone tells me he is very, very charismatic, he is very, very charming. He conned the whole world for 10 years. Do I really want to put myself through that? I am sure he'd con me, so let's keep our distance!”

Why has Frears experienced such success with real life subjects? “When it's about a real person, the audience sort of believes it. When it's about an actor, they believe it less. So the fact that we can produce the real Philomena or the real Queen, you start off much further down the track. Almost by accident, I have stumbled into these films about real life but I can also see they are very, very interesting.”

Philomena screens at the 2013 British Film Festival and will be released nationwide on December 26.