Directed by: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Michelle Fairley, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham
I’ve often felt with Stephen Frears that he’s at his best when tackling difficult issues with a populist slant. His latest effort, gathering a wide range of home grown talent, is the British equivalent of a blockbuster. It’s bold and intelligent with what should be close to universal appeal.
Philomena is based on the book by former journalist and government press adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan also on screenwriting duties with Jeff Pope). At a loose end after acrimoniously losing his job over the 9/11 “good day to bury bad news” emails, and the subsequent fallout a year later, he stumbles across the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). As a young woman, she was effectively locked away in a convent in Ireland after getting pregnant and had her child taken away and given up for adoption. 50 years later, her misplaced guilt finally forced her to reveal what happened to her daughter who encourages Martin to investigate the story and help Philomena track down her son.
Together, they trek across the Atlantic to try and uncover the whereabouts of her stolen child who she has never stopped thinking about. This is a sensitive issue addressed with genuine warmth and kindness. Where it might have been easy to artificially exploit her situation for maximum impact, the screenplay actually discusses the pressures Martin is under to do just that.
Make no mistake, the activities undertaken at that convent, where young and vulnerable girls were mistreated, effectively used as slaves while their children are snatched away if they are even lucky enough to survive poorly managed childbirth, are truly atrocious. And that doesn’t even factor in the attempted cover up perpetuated to deny their crimes. The temptation to stick the knife in is almost overwhelming, but this is a layered experience, Martin’s rage contrasting with Philomena’s calm forgiveness in the face of seemingly unforgivable sins. She teaches us that wrong is wrong but it doesn’t have to consume you.
Despite the bleak subject matter, the script is littered with comic moments, many of them uproariously so. Coogan and Dench strike up an endearing relationship that adds warmth to their lighter moments together. But the core of this film is an emotionally traumatic event, and frequently it is almost impossible to watch without blinking away tears.
In what is effectively a two-hander, so much rests on the shoulders of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Dench is astonishing in a role that could have been overly simplified in lesser hands. Dench’s Philomena is naïve on a surface level, and eternally optimistic despite the knocks she’s received in life. She is fascinated by everyone she meets along the way, from Martin right through to the staff in their Washington hotel. Yet there is a steely fire lying underneath that drives her forward, a fire unblemished by a petty desire for revenge.
Sixsmith, in contrast, behaves in a way many of us would. Initially focussed only on his own career, irritated by Philoemena’s lack of cultural knowledge and middle class etiquette, he comes to resent the way she’s been treated. An almost holy rage overcomes him in a zeal for retribution that only Philomena can dampen by her own determined stand on the matter. Coogan captures this perfectly with his intellectually arrogant everyman.
There is something for everyone in this emotionally resonant master class in populist film making. No other art form can put you through an uplifting emotional wringer in under two hours so effectively. Religion may well be the opiate of the masses, but this is equally addictive in a positive way. Just you try avoiding Philomena’s charms.