Based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, this latest feature from director Stephen Frears (The Queen) is at times heartbreaking, but perfectly balanced by a deep streak of humour. The comedic element shouldn’t be a surprise due to the involvement of Steve Coogan, who co-wrote and stars, but that it’s so prominent in such an emotional story, and that it works so well, is.
First of all this is a gripping story, with twists, turns and emotional blows along the way. The film begins with former journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who’s just been unceremoniously fired from his Government press job. While considering writing books on Russian history, Sixsmith happens to meet the titular Philomena (Judi Dench) through her daughter, and learns the story that she’s kept a secret for 50 years, but can’t any longer: how a one off tryst as a teenager in Ireland led to a pregnant Philomena being abandoned by her father in a convent. There she was pressed into working in slave like conditions, giving up all rights to her child for the great sin he felt she had committed. She could only see her son for an hour a day, until he as taken away all-together, adopted by a wealthy couple.
Sixsmith had initially brushed off the idea of just another ‘human interest story’, but after hearing it is keen to pursue a tale involving lost children and ‘evil nuns’. At first it’s more for his and his publishers sake than of desire to help Philomena, but this changes as he and Philomena undertake a journey that takes them to Ireland, America and eventually the truth about the son that was taken from her.
The real heart of the film is Judi Dench’s Philomena. It’s a very powerful portrait that mixes deep-seated shame, regret and guilt with charm, courage, and a desire for the truth, not revenge. Coogan’s performance, while less impactful, is equally important, showing his quality as a dramatic actor that many would have not seen in him before. Philomena and Sixsmith make an odd pair, he the atheistic, worldly, somewhat amoral ex-political spin doctor; she the old working class woman who still clings to her faith and is astounded at the sight of little chocolates on pillows, but the chemistry between Dench and Coogan is marvelous, almost effortless. Frears directs simply but smartly, foregrounding the actors and the dialogue, and his weaving of time periods is fairly seamless, the use of old film giving the flash backs an expressive quality, which is excellently supported by Alexandre Desplat’s evocative London Symphony Orchestra-performed score.
While Alan Partridge will forever be Steve Coogan’s greatest creation, this funny, moving and at times angry film is right up there as his best work on page and screen, aided by a superb performance from Judi Dench.
Philomena is released on 26th December
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench
Written by: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope