Philomena

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench are dynamite in this Oscar-nominated drama

Also opening this week:

• 300: Rise of an Empire ★★★

Philomena

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Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Simone Lahbib, Charles Edwards, Anna Maxwell Martin, Ruth McCabe, Michelle Fairley, Wunmi Mosaku. Written by Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, from the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith.

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench make for a winning combination in Philomena, the latest film from director Stephen Frears (The Queen), based on the non-fiction novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. Tackling a heartbreaking story with a light – but never incongruous – touch that reflects its titular character’s outlook on life, this Oscar-nominated drama is a real winner and welcome return to form for its director. 

Sixsmith was a former BBC correspondent who went to work for Tony Blair’s government in the late 1990s; in the early 2000s, he was forced to resign his position after becoming involved in scandal over burying bad news (Sixsmith himself wasn’t at fault, but a leaked email originating from him brought attention to the wrongdoing). Gagged by the government and mulling over what to do next – a novel on Russian history didn’t seem to be capturing his imagination – Sixsmith was turned onto the story of Philomena Lee during a chance encounter at a party. 

In Philomena, Sixsmith is played by Steve Coogan, restrained but sardonic in a vaguely Alan Rickman-esque way. I was initially wary: the first-person insertion of the writer is usually a turnoff in these films, as the actual story is inevitably more interesting than the story of the telling of the story.

But Philomena works due to two terrific lead performances and the genuinely poignant odd-couple relationship between Sixsmith and his subject, Philomena (played by Judi Dench, in one of her more vulnerable – and likable – roles in recent memory). The film threatens to enter familiar journalist-source territory – is Martin exploiting Philomena? – but stops just short of turning maudlin. 

It also works as something of a detective story, as Sixsmith teams up with Philomena to track down the son she gave up for adoption some 50 years ago. Only ‘gave up’ isn’t exactly the right terminology: after becoming pregnant at the age of 15 in the early 1950s, Philomena was sent to live at an abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. After giving birth, she was forced to work in servitude for four years in order to pay back the debt of her stay. 

During this time, her son Anthony was forcibly taken from her, and sold to adoptive parents, who took him to the US. While Philomena went on to lead a ‘normal’ life – raising a daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who would eventually meet Sixsmith – she never forgot her long-lost son, her only keepsake being a photo that was delivered to her clandestine. In flashback scenes, the young Philomena is emphatically played by Sophie Kennedy Clark (Nymphomaniac). 

Philomena is distinctive in the way that it includes the author in a leading role; Sixsmith, apparently, had much less presence in the novel, which focused more on Philomena’s story. The movie shifts its view more towards the relationship between author and subject, and the substantial ideological gap that divides them: despite everything that the Church has done to Philomena, she remains a devout Catholic over the years, and is able to offer forgiveness while Sixsmith – and the audience – looks on in shock. 

That puts Philomena, the film, in thought-provoking but somewhat dramatically unsatisfying water. The movie creates clear villains here – the nuns at the abbey who not only committed horrible acts in the 1950s, but continued to compound them over the years through direct lies and deceit – but never punishes them, instead settling for Philomena’s mercy as dramatic catharsis.   

Director Frears has had ups and downs in recent years – his previous film, Lay the Favorite starring Bruce Willis, was one of the worst I’ve ever seen from a director of his caliber – but is in fine form for Philomena, working from a script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, who have adapted the Sixsmith novel. This is story that needed to be told, and it’s been told with care and compassion and a graceful touch that suits the material well.

Also opening this week:


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