The fact Philomena is based on truth is utterly horrific, but it’s a story that needs to be told and one which Stephen Frears has told very well. With the always brilliant Judi Dench as Philomena, an old woman who was forced to give her child up for adoption as a teenager, it tells her story as she tries to find her long lost son. Steve Coogan appears as Martin Sixsmith, the weary journalist who found himself helping Philomena track down her son. Horrifyingly, this isn’t a one off story. Whilst telling Philomena Lee’s story, the film highlights a regular occurrence in the 50s when hundreds of teenage girls lost their children to mainly American families after falling pregnant and being forced to live in convents.
It’s no wonder Philomena won the prize for Best Screenplay at Venice this year. The humour and heartbreak flow easily as the chemistry between Martin and Philomena is just wonderful. Coogan is allowed a few Partridge moments but otherwise the humour tends to come from Philomena as she brings out the either dotty old lady or surprisingly wise woman. One of her best lines involves a discovery about Michael (her son) to which her reaction is one of the funniest things I’ve seen. Dench is astonishingly good switching between a woman struggling with her past and what her search brings her, plus the more carefree moments such as telling Martin the plot of the book she’s reading. You would assume the dialogue in this scene will fade out and a score will fade in, but no. It’s a funny and heartwarming scene as Martin is subjected to an old woman’s chatter.
The other side of things are less amusing. Through a series of flashbacks (with young Philomena played by Sophie Kennedy Clark) Philomena’s story is told from her getting pregnant to her birth to the heartbreaking moment when her son is driven away. The point where the film rips your heart out and puts it through a shredder comes towards the end, whilst Philomena is watching a home video of Michael. After everything she’s been through, this moment is the final nail in the coffin, and the point when she decides once and for all that her story will be told. It’s heartbreaking and Dench pulls it off effortlessly. Awards are on the horizon for her.
Whilst you’re watching Philomena, just keep reminding yourself that this isn’t made up. This actually happened and Philomena Lee is one of many women who suffered as a result. Stephen Frear has done a great job of telling her story with warmth and the help of a great central duo. Dench shines as Philomena and Coogan is actually pretty good as the cynical journalist who finds himself arguing with his editor and himself. This is a heartbreaking and wonderful film on many levels. Take tissues.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Runtime: 98 mins
Country: UK, USA, France