Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Charlie Murphy, Mare Winningham
Running time: 98 minutes
Out-of-work journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is seeking a human interest story to get back in the game when stumbles across Philomena Lee (Dench), a woman with a fascinating and tragic secret. As a young woman her son, born out-of-wedlock, was torn from her when he was adopted and taken to America while she was repenting for her “sins” at a Catholic Church. Now, fifty years later, she’s trying to find him.
What on the face of it looks like a bit of light, quirky comedy with two of Britain’s finest acting talents is actually an extremely grown-up and totally modest true tale of maternal love with an always respectful voice. The script, which was co-written by Coogan, has a wonderful balance throughout. Take the strong religious commentary running through the center; one of the driving forces of the drama and the main building block of the central relationship. While Sixsmith, an atheist, constantly takes jabs at God and religion, Philomena, despite the tragedy that happened to her years earlier because of her religion, always keeps the faith with the belief that what happened wasn’t out of evil or hatred. It’s refreshingly to the point and honest in that it highlights both the flaws and convictions of religion while never being demeaning to either side.
The comedy, taking on a sort of backseat driver role, is equally well-observed. With plenty of wit and satire bumbling around the edges, we still rely heavily on the chemistry between Coogan and Dench to bring the humour to a climax. And what chemistry they have. There’s such an effortlessness between them, an ease to exchange dialogue and play off each other. Dench particularly has some delightfully sharp (and rude) lines that she delivers with the most playfully reverent edge, and Coogan, as brilliant as Alan Partridge is, is never better than this. Yet Dench just as effortlessly spins in the opposite direction and brings a fracturing fragility to Philomena that would so clearly be present in such a situation – showing off the reason she’s a Dame. It always finds the right moments to make us laugh, and the right moments to ease off.
Around half way through the drama shifts its direction to American soils as Sixsmith and Philomena attempt to track down her son who had been adopted by Americans and ended up being a prominent figure in the Reagan and Bush administrations. The setting shift brings its own brand of delights as Philomena adjusts to the pampering of hotels and the big, flashy wonders of American cities, all under the cynical eye of Sixsmith, but it also brings to the fray another potent world issue: politics. But before the groan occurs, it importantly doesn’t get bogged down with it – just as it doesn’t get bogged down with religion – it simply uses politics as another catalyst for the growth of Sixsmith’s and Philomena’s relationship as well as a backseat commentary device for the makers.
Stephen Frears has crafted a truly delightful, poignant little film that’s as unassuming as its title character and as refreshing as her Tunes. The week is overshadowed by Gods and hammers, but if there’s one new film really worth checking out, it’s this.