Film: Women on the edge of an emotional breakthrough

It was the first time Brenda Blethyn and Julie Walters worked together, but `Girls' Night' was the start of a beautiful friendship.
IT'S MID-APRIL 1997. I'm standing in the market of a small town outside Manchester, talking to a young man whom no one recognises as a movie director. Around us is spread the paraphernalia of a shoot. The locals are healthily indifferent to the invasion. In a couple of days, the lights and trucks will be gone but local business will go on.

Nick Hurran is doing something directors in Hollywood don't do. He is talking about writers. "I've been very lucky all along the way with the writers I have got to work with - Richard Harris, Simon Nye. Michael Frayn wrote the last thing I did." That was Remember Me? a film developed from one of Frayn's 1960s television plays called Jamie on a Flying Visit, and, it might be argued, better left in television history.

A rather small part in Remember Me? was taken by Brenda Blethyn, doubtless as a favour to Hurran after the success they shared in three series of the Richard Harris sitcom Outside Edge, itself developed from a stage play. Now Blethyn is waiting in her trailer to shoot a scene from Girls' Night, which pairs her with Julie Walters, to everyone's surprise the first time these two have played together.

Blethyn stepped off the plane from last year's Oscars ceremony to be rushed to the read-through of Girls' Night. There is little doubt where she feels more comfortable. Not that the madness of LA did not amuse her. "We had a limo to take us to the Elton John party because he was going to toast the independent films at midnight. My partner Mike and I noticed we were down back streets and surely not where we were supposed to be. So I said to the driver: "Do you know where you are?" and he said: "No, Ma'am." He was a stranger in Los Angeles and he was lost. I panicked. It was terribly embarrassing to go into a garage in a stretch limo to ask directions. I was decked out in $3m-worth of jewellery and we were lost in the back streets."

Julie Walters, of course, went through this experience 14 years earlier with her Academy Award nomination for Educating Rita. I wondered if they had compared notes. "Not yet," says Blethyn. "Our heads have been down, working. It seems like history now to me. That's the best medicine of all. It isn't half nice. And I am a real fan of hers. But it is straight to work, then home to bed and no time for anything else. I can't phone my work in. And I must have my sleep.

Walters is pleased about the pairing, too. "She is my type of actress. I feel as if I know her. It's really funny. In another life perhaps."

Girls' Night is about two sisters in law who regularly play bingo together. Walters' character, Jackie, is a brassy go-getter, feeling hemmed in by disappointing husband and lousy production-line jobs. Dawn (Blethyn) is a devoted home-maker who is just beginning to be overwhelmed by illness when she has a big win on the bingo.

Kay Mellor's bold and beautifully written script embraces the emotion and the humour of the women's situation in a way that is very un-English and almost shamelessly upfront.

The actresses lap it up.

"Right! This is it! Absolutely!" cries Julie Walters. "And middle-aged women! We love this!"

For her, acting a role affected by the desperate illness of someone close is bound to be shadowed by the long struggle borne by Walters' daughter Maisie in her childhood. "Your life does affect your work. Everything is going to influence the way you observe and embody a character. It was peculiar shooting in a hospital the other day. We spent such a long time in hospital. But Maisie's well and a child and my daughter and it was such a huge personal thing, there's nothing like the fear of losing a child. I think I felt more aware of remembering my friend Ian Charleson when he was dying in 1990. But I try to keep away from too much emotion when I am working because I wouldn't want to go `whahey!' - you might never stop. So I don't consciously go to it as emotional material. But it's part of me, naturally."

I ask Brenda Blethyn about the difficulty of playing emotional scenes. "I don't find one thing more difficult than another to play. It's just finding the truth of it, not how you do something but why you do it, why you say it. That's the most challenging part of any acting. All you should ever do is trust the writing. If you don't trust it, don't do it."

She was given an early draft of the script and at that stage said she would be keen to pursue it. "It's been floating around in my mind for about nine months, like a pregnancy. I didn't sit down and sweat over it. She was just renting a room up in my head somewhere. The true friendship of women, even though neither of them really realises it, I found nourishing. It's so tender, but she is not afraid of things being ugly."

Julie Walters says that Kay Mellor's dialogue is unusually easy to play. "It just goes into your head. I don't say I never forget a line but it's very easy to learn and that is a good sign I always think. And of course middle-aged women are rarely represented this well.

Meeting Kay Mellor four months later, I encounter a writer ecstatic with the fine cut of the film that Nick Hurran has just shown her. "It's very seldom in any writer's career that a script is realised 100 per cent. Brenda and Julie just knew what I wanted. They knew why I had written it. Nick's been affected by cancer in his family so he understood it, too. It almost seemed like someone was up there looking after us."

The script had unusually personal origins. "I wrote it as a tribute to a friend who was dying of cancer a couple of years ago. They were encouraging her to talk about it. But she didn't want to. The last thing she said to me was: `You have to write about it, Kay, so that we don't have to talk about it, those of us that don't want to.' And I wanted to understand how she graciously left this life while I was furious and raging."

`Girls' Night' opens on 26 June.