‘Judi Dench and Steve Coogan shine in this emotional roller coaster – a masterful piece of storytelling’
‘When it’s a true story, the audience start twenty yards down the track’, remarked Stephen Frears in an interview with Radio 4’s Francine Stock. Certainly, the words ‘inspired by true events’ that preface his latest effort, Philomena, lend further gravitas to an already compelling film, one undoubtedly deserving of its four Oscar nominations.
It is based on the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman who became pregnant as an unmarried teenager in the 50s, whose child was taken from her by the sisters of the abbey in which she worked, and who attempted to find him half a century later with the help of spin-doctor-cum-journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). The relationship between this unlikely pairing takes centre-stage; their contrasting attitudes, backgrounds and beliefs are a constant source of humour, conflict and poignancy.
Dench and Coogan are cast perfectly and both deliver memorable performances. Dench’s gentle Irish pensioner effortlessly combines predictable, yet enjoyable, ‘fish-out-of-water’ jokes with tear-jerking moments of real emotion, without ever losing credibility. Coogan is similarly believable; his middle-class, anti-religious, well-spoken Sixsmith is simultaneously likeable and irritating. When his soft bbc voice rises to an indignant shout, one feels a surge of warmth, yet his pedantry, his occasional insensitivity and his questionable motivation are present just enough to mildly annoy. It’s is well-known that Coogan resents constant comparison to his most famous character, yet it is impossible not to observe a dialled down Alan Partridge in his performance.
Pleasingly, this is not a story of one character undergoing a dramatic personality change, as might be expected. Neither appears to alter their perspective much throughout. Instead, the film’s drive is rooted in the various thought-provoking themes it embraces: the morality of adoption, the questionable ethics of the Catholic Church, the importance of family, and the propriety of ‘human interest’ journalism. All are subtly explored, principally through the two protagonists’ attitudes, yet none are thrust upon the viewer, and one is left thoroughly engaged with the story told.Indeed, one becomes so emotionally involved with the plight of Philomena, that at the conclusion, as Coogan angrily remonstrates with the elderly sisters who forced the adoption, it’s all one can do not to stand up and start berating them through the screen.
Director Frears freely admits that the film is ‘creative’ with the facts, that all is not portrayed accurately. As a historical record then, Philomena is perhaps lacking, but as a film, it is a masterful piece of storytelling, drawing the viewer in then punching the emotional stuffing out of him as it develops, helped by fantastic performances form Dench and Coogan, Alexandre Desplat’s elegant soundtrack, and Frears’ assured direction.