Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish lady who was brought up by nuns in Roscrea Abbey. As a teen she fell pregnant and as a punishment the nuns took away the baby, allowing her to see him for merely an hour a day. This was fairly common at Roscrea and it seemed the nuns not only punished but cashed in on the sins of the young ladies by selling their babies to Americans. Philomena had hidden this horrific story for 50 years, but she wanted to know what had become of her son. Cue disgraced BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who, via Philomena’s daughter, learns of the story and immediately rejects it due to it being ‘human interest’. But Martin soon changes his mind when he realises this is the best opportunity he will get to be a journalist again and the two meet.
What follows is an investigative journey discovering what happened to her child Anthony, which takes the two of them to Roscrea and then all the way to Washington as they try to get to the bottom of what had become of him. What drives this tragic yet uplifting tale is the dynamic between the two characters. Immediate opposites, Martin states he doesn’t believe in God, whereas Philomena still has her Roman Catholic faith, he dines in Knightsbridge, her favourite place to eat is a Harvester, the two come together and get to know one another along the way. Philomena is a naïve and inexperienced person who, in Martin’s words demonstrates what a lifetime of Reader’s Digest and the Daily Mail can do. He is far more cynical with a world-weary view on life.
However, this isn’t a typical story of two opposites coming together and becoming best buddies. We see as Philomena starts to annoy Martin at breakfast in a hotel in Washington and also his disbelief at her remaining faith in God. The film has achieved the difficult task of balancing comedy and serious drama with the drama never losing its power. The jokes are good and Coogan’s co-writing is evident but the stupidity and inappropriate comments from Philomena do become a little on the tedious side after a while. However, there are some wonderful moments and the interactions between the two characters are what make the film.
It is based on a true story and Dench talked at the press conference about how she met with the real Philomena before filming, how the real Philomena had a great sense of humour and how it was important “for me to get an essence of her. There is such a responsibility in playing someone who is alive” she said. Coogan also met with the real Martin Sixsmith before writing the screenplay and he said that they “sometimes turned up the volume on things to make it more dramatic… and Martin understood this”. As to what attracted British director Stephen Frears to the film he said “I was last on board. I could see it was an interesting story and a controversial one”.
The film does not paint the Roman Catholic Church in a particularly good light, but as the event is history now hopefully people will not find it too contentious but Coogan was still quick to state that it is “not a polemic and it was important not to do that”. For all the badness, Philomena still kept her faith and had forgiveness and that demonstrates a much better side to Catholicism and any faith for that matter.
Philomena is a nice enjoyable film that will appeal to a wide audience. Coogan really is great and Dench is very good but perhaps takes it a little too far in parts. The film is already being referred to as this year’s The King’s Speech and it certainly is a good wholesome British film. It is not an overwhelming film but it is a comfortable film dealing with uncomfortable events in a family friendly manner and thankfully it is not half as bad as it could have been.
Overall, a nice British comedy-drama where Coogan really shines and an important story is told.
Out in cinemas 1st November 2013
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Runtime: 98 mins
Country: UK, USA, France