Stephen Frears // 2013 // 98 mins
Based on the 2009 investigative novel 'The Lost Child of Philomena Lee', Philomena follows the struggles of one woman, played by Judi Dench, to find the child that was forcibly taken from her 50 years earlier. When her story comes to the attention of disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), he vows to help Philomena track down her son Anthony. Despite receiving no help from the convent that arranged the adoption, the pair track Anthony down to Washington and travel out there to try and make contact. This is a touching, stranger-than-fiction human interest film that focuses on one remarkable woman and the man who wants to tell her story.
At the heart of the film is the unexpected bond that develops between Martin and Philomena during their journey. Theirs is a relationship that on paper shouldn't really work; a cynical, smart-talking journalist looking for a new venture in his life and a sweet, old lady who is haunted by her past. The success of the film lies entirely in the strength of these two people and the actors tasked with portraying them. Steve Coogan is remarkable in a rare dramatic role as Sixsmith and is able to convey a younger generations opinions and reactions to the actions of the convent, providing a much-needed contrast to Philomena's forgiving nature. Sixsmith, despite begin a character in the narrative, very much represents the viewer. He is charmed by Philomena as we are, he wants to protect her feelings as we do and he becomes as angered and frustrated by the wrongs done against her as we do. While his could easily have been the less emotionally engaging performance, the actor/writer explores Sixsmith's part in this story further and provides one of the films most affecting scenes in a naked display of emotion. Having co-written the screenplay, Coogan has laced the film with a dry humour that works wonderfully in making a difficult and oft-upsetting subject matter entertaining and enjoyable to follow, showing that such a powerful story does not need to be endlessly distressing and that the moderated use of humour can actually enhance the power of the story.
As the titular Philomena, Judi Dench is wonderful and brings such warmth and emotional depth to her character that it would be hard not to form some sort of bond with her over the course of the film. She completely inhabits her character in order to bring Philomena's story to the masses and does so with ease. The perfectly balanced tone of Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope's screenplay allows Dench to effortlessly alternate between moments of charming humour and heart-wrenching sadness and it is these surprising touches of comedy in the script that work so well in making Philomena a well-rounded character; preventing her from becoming the one-note sob story she so easily could have been. Though she really excels in delivering a moving central performance, it is the relationship between Philomena and Martin that is the films most successful feature. While the script goes a long way to ensuring this pairing works as well as it does, their is a subtle chemistry between Dench and Coogan that makes their connection and journey all the more enjoyable to witness. They are an unconventional pairing but there is a real sense of fondness between them and it is clear that Martin cares for his elderly companion and her plight.
There has been criticism of the film for condemning the nuns who were responsible for Philomena's grief, and while they are clearly painted in a villainous light I find it hard to see how anyone could believe that this is an unfair portrayal. Philomena herself is extremely forgiving of their behaviour, even when their most cruel actions are revealed, which makes me curious as to how much more the people who claim that the film is one-sided wanted from the writers. One scene in particular, which has Martin attacking the outdated practices of the nuns and their subsequent dealings with Philomena, could be considered unfair or too much but as a viewer I was very much in the same mindset as Coogan's character and felt that this was one of few scenes that actually called the church out on their awful conduct. The decision to use home-movie segments to break up the narrative is inspired and provides a poignant insight into the life that Anthony had when he was taken to America, the life that Philomena was denied a chance to share with him. This device also keeps the number of scenes featuring people talking about Anthony, who was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, to a minimum and allows the focus to remain on Philomena and her discovery of her child's life.
Philomena's score and cinematography both enhance the films emotional punch, but this is very much a performance driven piece that places all of its power in the hands of the actors, and they do a damn fine job in navigating such an affecting story. At its core this is very much the soppy human-interest kind of story that Martin condemns early in the film, but it is greatly elevated by the talent of the leads and Dench and Coogan each deliver remarkable performances that make Philomena such a treasure.