Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham
Genre: Drama/Comedy/True story
Disgraced former political spin doctor and journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is now unemployed, broke and desperately looking for his latest project. Through a chance meeting, and despite initially showing no interest in ‘human interest stories’, Sixsmith eventually agrees to write a story on pensioner Philomena Lee (Dench) and help her find her son she has not seen for nearly 50 years. As a teenager, Philomena was disowned by her family when falling pregnant, and was forced to live in a strict convent in Ireland. When her son was three, he, along with many other children were given away for adoption by the convent without the mothers consent. After nearly half a century Philomena has finally plucked up the courage to search for him, and her and Sixsmith embark on a journey first to Ireland, then Washington D.C. that will hopefully enable them to not just discover about Philomena’s son, but perhaps one or two things about themselves.
Though sounding on the surface like just another ‘grey pound’ crowd pleaser, thankfully Philomena in my view has more substance than that, producing an engaging human story delivered with integrity and genuine heart. Though naturally marketed as a comedy (don’t get me started on the marketing lot again), this is definitely more human drama than comedy. There is of course comedy; it is mostly subtle moments as these two very conflicting characters embark on their journey together. Thankfully these are not overdone, as they would just feel force if there was too much ‘comedic’ moments.
Coogan and Dench share obvious chemistry, with Coogan and Jeff Pope’s strong script making sure the inevitable heart string pulling drama is broken up with some more light hearted moments. Dench herself is as solid as always, perfectly honing Philomena’s good natured naivety, but determination. Coogan, in one of his more serious roles, is excellent. Though demonstrating an embittered nature and arrogance, Sixsmith is a character of depth, and though initially hiding cynical motivations behind helping Philomena, is a character we grow to like. The characters have to depend on each other to finally get to the truth.
Naturally, this being a drama, perhaps the conflicting personalities are a little over emphasised for dramatic effect and at times verge on contrived. For example, despite all she has experienced, Philomena is still deeply religious while Sixsmith is an Athiest. Though this may have been true, it is slightly hammered home for dramatic effect. Having not read the book, I may be wrong, but in the film certain moments that drive the plot forward are perhaps made a little more dramatic than they may have been in real life. Expect the usual cliches of one character being persuaded to change their mind at the last minute by the other.
Sixsmith often has embittered and cynical speeches, and within the narrative there is a consistent portrayal of newspaper journalism being heartless and the importance being the story, even if it is about a real person. Considering some of Coogan’s personal appearances on shows such as Newsnight in the past, these feel perhaps more like him venting his own spleen than just adding depth to the story. However, this is forgivable as they do work with the character of Sixsmith, and he is certainly a character portrayed demonstrating as many imperfections as all of us.
One key character within the film that does not get off lightly is the Catholic Church; almost playing the character of antagonist, Frears is not afraid to portray it as repressive and certainly in a less than positive light. Though I am sure a lot of their actions in the film may be true, this may again be partly down to Coogan’s script, as he definitely seems to say the line “f**king Catholics!” with real conviction that suggests it is perhaps a little a more than just acting.
Despite the more contrived moments, as the narrative develops there are some genuinely moving and surprising moments. The revelations within the final third produce a real emotional and often unexpected punch.
Though often verging on crowd pleasing and contrived, thanks to two excellent performances and a genuine human story at its heart, Philomena is an engaging and rewarding drama.