Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Steve Coogan, Dame Judi Dench
Plot: Philomena Lee (Dench) was made to give up her son for adoption when she was very young and she enlists the help of disgraced politican and have-a-go journalist, Sixsmith (Coogan).
When Philomena was a young teenage girl growing up in a strict Catholic Home, she was made to give up her son, because it was born out of wedlock. She was made to feel as though she had sinned, but when her would-be son turns 50, she decides to set out to find him. At the same time, Martin Sixsmith is looking for a new career and winds up looking into writing human interest stories. He stumbles across Philomena’s story and, seeking a large pay day, takes her to New York to find her missing son. However, as the journey gets more tragic and Sixsmith’s employers start demanding that he take this heart-broken, old woman to places where she doesn’t want to go, morals start to get in the way of the investigation.
First and foremost, this is a beautiful story. It is slow-burning, yes, and not the kind of thing you might decide to go watch at the cinema. However, if you are patient and put up with the methodical, thoughtful approach to these true events, then you will be rewarded with one of the more heart-warming tales of 2013. It does take you to dark places, especially the flashback sequences, where Philomena’s life is ripped apart by the nuns of the Catholic home, and she takes it all on the chin, because she believes she has sinned. Yes, it starts a tough watch, and while the actual events rarely cheer up, when we are in the present, the addition of Steve Coogan makes all of these horrific plot points delightfully bite-size and easy to handle, something that suggests a certain brilliance with the script.
And it is the humor that really excels here. Martin Sixsmith and Philomena Lee are worlds apart and there is a genuine pleasure in seeing how they react to things. Martin takes Philomena to a hotel breakfast buffet and her reaction to it is wonderful to watch, especially juxtaposed with Coogan’s apathy on the sidelines. The humor is also the key element that lets you know just how British this film is. The jokes are also very slow and subtle, causing appreciative chuckles, rather than side-aching belly laughter, but they are gloriously set-up all the same. Surprisingly both actors get equal amounts of jokes. Coogan does what he is best at: the tried, so very British one-liners, being mildly annoyed at almost everything he interacts with in the course of the movie. His refined manner is one of the most interesting elements of this film, proving that he is more than just a funny face. Judi Dench is just as funny, and probably has the louder laughs. Her dotty Irish nature is used terrifically, especially when she reels off the entire plot to a romance novel. While these characters are taken to dark places, it never becomes too much for the audience, because they are usually only a few moments away from bringing a smile back to your face.
The characters are written superbly. I enjoyed how Steve Coogan is an observer to these events as much as we are. There is a certain amount of connection between Sixsmith and the audience, to the point where every emotion and thought that Sixsmith gets, in relation to the over-arching narrative, we find ourselves sharing. And then we have Philomena, who, as the script reminds us, is the only person with any right to react strongly to any of these events. The climax of this movie is handled brilliantly, as Coogan acts out exactly how we would want to react in his shoes and Philomena stands up and does the unexpected, in a powerhouse moment that makes the time put into this movie all worth it. It is a brilliant moment and while we, and Martin Sixsmith, might not understand Philomena’s choices, it is, after all, her story.
One more thing. I was going to give this movie a pretty average review. I enjoyed it at the cinema, but there wasn’t anything stand-out about it that wowed me during the viewing. Maybe I was expecting a little more from the five star review Empire magazine gave it. However, after a day or two mulling over the finer points of the film, it has grown on me, considerably. This is a film that makes you think and that thought process and dwelling makes the experience much deeper and worthwhile.
Final Verdict: One of the best scripts of the year and two outstanding performances that will move you and make you laugh, often at the same time.