Film review: Philomena

Stephen Frears' rich, resonant piece features a brilliant piece of acting by Judi Dench.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in a scene from Philomena. Courtesy The Weinstein Company / AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

Philomena Director: Stephen Frears Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham, Anna Maxwell Martin ⋆⋆⋆⋆

According to Steve Coogan, the starting point for Philomena was not the real-life source book by Martin Sixsmith but a photograph. A picture of the BBC journalist and his subject Philomena Lee sitting on a bench, it seemingly sums up this poignant odd couple tale – one that failed to win any gongs at the Golden Globes on Sunday but is still in the running for four Baftas.

Played with perception by Judi Dench, Philomena is an elderly Irish Catholic – sweet in nature and simple in tastes. Back when she was a teenager living in Ireland, she fell pregnant and her family put her in a convent in Roscrea. After giving birth, the nuns sold her young child to an American couple; a shocking, shameful event.

Five decades on, and on her son’s birthday, she has a little too much to drink and reveals all to her grown-up daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin). It leads them to Sixsmith (Coogan), who is experiencing a career implosion when the women petition him to help Philomena track down her long-lost son. Initially reluctant – he doesn’t do “human-interest stories” he says, with almost a sneer – he eventually relents.

Directed by Stephen Frears, who previously worked with Dench on 2005’s Mrs Henderson Presents, what follows is a tragicomic odyssey as Sixsmith takes Philomena back to the convent, only to be met by a quiet conspiracy of silence surrounding the institution’s dirty secret. Eventually, the trail leads the mismatched pair to Washington DC.

The humour is deliciously played; in one airport-set scene, while on the back of an electric cart ferrying them to their gate, Philomena takes great pains in telling her male companion the plot of a trashy-sounding romantic novel. It’s a brilliant piece of comic acting by Dench, who plays her character with just the right amount of wide-eyed wonder.

Adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope from Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film may lack political complexity, but it still has teeth. The increasing indignation that Coogan’s character feels towards the Catholic Church, versus the religious Philomena’s capacity to forgive, makes for an interesting, thought-provoking dynamic.

Frears directs in his usual unfussy manner, letting his actors get on with the business of acting while he ever-so-subtly pulls the strings. It may not be as moving as The Queen, his last big-screen bio-pic, but it’s a rich, resonant piece.