Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Mare Winningham, Charlie Murphy, Sean Mahon
Written by: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope and (based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”) Martin Sixsmith
Running Time: 98 mins
Release date: 1st November 2013
It’s been a pretty good year for Steve Coogan. Apart from the slight blip that was the disappointing The Look Of Love, the TV comic has been in some of this year’s best films: Despicable Me 2, What Maisie Knew and, of course, the hilarious Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Now he’s done it again with a heart-felt, small drama based on a true story and he’s taken one of our National Treasures along for the ride too.
Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist for the BBC, who became a spin doctor for the government until scandal led to his demise, is unemployed and desperate to work. At a drinks party, he meets Kathleen, a waitress, who tells him a story about her mother. He’s not interested but soon changes his mind when it could be a chance for work. He meets her, a naive, devoted Roman Catholic woman called Philomena. She had a son that was taken away from her by the nuns in the convent she was staying and given to another family. She never heard of him again. Philomena has been searching for his whereabouts but to no avail. Sixsmith decides to help her and soon the unlikely pairing of a soft-spoken Irish woman and a hard-nosed, cynical journalist begin a journey of discovery to find the truth of her missing boy.
It could have been easy to have made an overblown, over sentimental tale of a woman’s desperate search for the son she never really knew. In the hands of expert director Stephen Frears, who has made loads of small dramas just like this, he does exactly the right thing. He doesn’t over-complicate things with flashy camera trickery (apart from the use of 16 and 8mm on the flash-backs) and just lets the script and the actors do the work.
Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope have taken Martin Sixsmith’s book about the real life Philomena Lee and neatly balanced the tale so that it’s much more than just a woman looking for her boy. It’s a story of two people, from two very different worlds and how they cope being together on a mighty quest. It’s about the old world meeting the new, the privileged meeting the innocent. It’s all done with warmth and sincerity and humour while at the same time never forgetting that this is a tale of sorrow. Again, never spread on thickly, when it needs to be sentimental, it’s far more powerful and dramatic and heart-wrenching.
It also helps that the two leads have such chemistry. Coogan, playing Sixsmith, gives just about the right level of sarcasm and cynicism, while at the same time never being malicious or discourteous to Philomena’s plight (although in one scene in a restaurant, Sixsmith is a little too brutal for everyone’s liking).
The real joy is Dame Judi Dench. As the mournful Philomena, this is a woman full of pain etched on her face, yet at the same time she is transformed into a world she has never seen before so there is an innocent wonderment about it. Dench, in my books, cannot do no wrong and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. She is magnificent. A masterclass in acting.
The pairing of Dench and Coogan is one that, if you saw it on paper, you would never believe would work but it does and it’s this that gives the film its real strength. Scenes of them in cars, travelling around are just mesmerizing and beautifully played. They are funny, sometimes tough, sometimes just delightful. This is a partnership made in screen heaven and one that should be seen to be believed.
Philomena may not have the budget of a Hollywood drama and might not have the money behind it for publicity but it is a film to track down and saviour. As Sixsmith says, it’s a human interest tale. Well you should be interested because it’s a delight that has an emotional hard punch up its sleeve and I doubt there will be many dry eyes by the end.