Given last year finally saw Alan Partridge make his big screen debut you’d be forgiven for assuming Philomena was just ‘that other Steve Coogan’ film of 2013. The truth could not be further from all the Aha-ing of Partridge’s cartoonish ways because Philomena is a warm, powerful and always fascinating drama with enough sprinkling of constant comedy to keep it light and adorable.
Having recently lost his job as a Labour government advisor, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has every intention of writing a book about Russian history. That is until he meets Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) who, 50 years ago, had her child taken from her by a convent of nuns who then sold her son to American parents looking to adopt. At first the tale of woe doesn’t interest Sixsmith but the more he learns of Philomena’s, and countless other women like her, plight he soon begins to understand the depth of the injustice she has faced and so the pair set off to America to find Philomena’s son.
While the story of Philomena and Martin uncovering the truth about what happened to her son has the potential to be a weepy, movie of the week affair it is anything but. Director Stephen Frears, who has always managed to juggle heart with humour, keeps things light, only ever dipping into the realm of maudlin cheese in fleeting flashbacks that are there more to flesh out the reality of the situation rather than manipulate the heartstrings.
Co-writers Coogan and Jeff Pope conduct a clever juggling act of ideas that keep Philomena always fresh. The story is one thing but it’s the characters and their increasing reliance on each other that truly captures. The comedy is never glaring but more in the conflict of ideas that Martin and Philomena have. She’s a slightly naïve but always devote Catholic whereas Martin is arrogant and refuses to even acknowledge the importance of Philomena’s faith. The result is a warm and nuanced buddy comedy, the pair always bouncing off each other with an underlying affection buried beneath any pointed jibes that may lurk beneath their opposing world views.
Key to Philomena’s success are the two leads. Coogan sticks to what he knows best, delivering wonderfully dry lines that are almost exclusively for the audience as opposed to the other characters on offer. Where his Martin works so well though is in the gradual thawing of his outlook and affection for Philomena. It’s a side to Coogan that has rarely been seen, normally there’s a centre of attention vibe emanating from him but here he’s more of a Greek Chorus, smartly and quietly commenting on events in such a ways as to tap into the audiences’ inevitable thoughts on the story. Meanwhile Judi Dench, as is typical of this national treasure, is quietly and brilliantly stealing the show. Her Philomena, with her subdued Irish lilt and always watery eyes, is charming, firm when she needs to be and always wonderfully immune and unaware of Martin’s sarcastic ways. Together her combination and chemistry with Coogan is what makes Philomena a genuine treat.
A heartbreaking story wrapped in a heartwarming package, Philomena is like getting a toffee from your favourite grandparent while they weave a delicate yarn.