out of Five
Running time: 94
Superbly directed, powerfully emotional British drama with a witty, warm-hearted script and a pair of pitch-perfect performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
What's it all about?
Directed by Stephen Frears, Philomena is based on a true story and stars Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the script) as former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith who's licking his wounds after public disgrace following a stint as a Labour spin doctor. Attempting to get back into journalism, he stumbles upon the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a 70 year old Irish Catholic woman who has decided to search for her adult son, who was sold into adoption at the age of three, by a Magdalene laundry 50 years earlier.
Bankrolled by a tabloid newspaper, Sixsmith accompanies kind-hearted Philomena as she embarks on her search and their journey takes them from London to a convent in rural Ireland to the USA, including a trip to the White House. Along the way, cynical Sixsmith finds himself getting more and more involved in Philomena's story and the pair form an unlikely but touching friendship.
Judi Dench is simply wonderful as Philomena, a determined but occasionally naive woman (she frequently doesn't understand when Sixsmith is joking) who speaks her mind at all times; her enthusiastic re-telling of the plot of the Mills & Boon romance she's reading is a particular comic highlight. Coogan, in turn, delivers a finely judged performance as Sixsmith and the pair have unexpectedly delightful chemistry together: their gradually evolving affection for each other is as deeply moving as the central search itself.
The script lays the emotional groundwork early on with some devastating flashback sequences in which the young Philomena (played by Sophie Kennedy Clark) undergoes a horrific birth (“Her pain is her punishment,” remarks one of the nuns) and later has to watch helplessly as her adorable three year old son is driven away by an American family. Thankfully there's nothing quite as traumatic in the modern-day sequences, but Frears nevertheless includes a number of
quietly heart-breaking moments, one of which is so beautifully orchestrated that the audience are guaranteed to gasp in unison.
In addition, Frears does a terrific job of maintaining the tonal balance of the film, which refuses to descend into mawkish sentimentality (despite its powerfully emotional subject matter) and
is often laugh-out-loud funny. The script is also subtly thought-provoking, using Philomena and Sixsmith's light-hearted conversations and actions to explore ideas of faith, forgiveness, guilt, the existence of God in a cruel world and attitudes towards sex (a parallel is drawn between the nuns' treatment of the pregnant girls and the political handling of the AIDS crisis) in an engaging fashion that never stoops to preachiness.
By turns deeply moving and laugh-out-loud funny, Philomena is an emotionally rewarding drama with a superb script and terrific, sure-to-be-awards-worthy performances from Dench and Coogan. Highly recommended.