Sunday, 19 January 2014

Philomena Review

National treasure Judi Dench gives one of the best, funniest and emotionally stirring performances of her long career in Philomena. Writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and director Stephen Frears gift her a role that demands a huge emotional range and all wrapped up in a story that delivers so many twists, turns and unexpected revelations that it is also a seriously bumpy emotional ride for the viewer. With a character as wonderful as Philomena, you never quite know what to expect next, especially with such a warm and well written script and the film veers expertly between laugh out loud comedic moments and tear inducing heartbreak.


Philomena is the story of the titular little old lady's struggle to find her son who was stolen from her when she was just a very young woman. After a brief encounter with a young man in a fairground, Philomena was forced to give her boy up for adoption by the nuns who she lived with, worked for, and who convinced her of the shame she should feel. On the boy's 50th birthday, Philomena finally tells her daughter of the long lost son she has thought of every day since and her daughter makes contact with recently sacked spin doctor Martin Sixsmith to ask if he would be interested in helping tell Philomena's story. Sixsmith was a BBC political correspondent with only disdain for human interest stories in journalism but down on his luck and intrigued by the story, he decides to help Philomena to find her son in order to be able to turn it into an article.

Steve Coogan is clearly getting something off his chest with Philomena. Oddly, for a guy who has been so vehemently against the tabloid press, getting his own back on the News of the World by airing their dirty laundry at the Leveson Inquiry, Coogan centres his script and also takes the role of journalist Sixsmith. Without lumping all journalists together under the disgusting umbrella of the gutter press, it is still strange to see Coogan playing a man who decides to try earning his living at digging into someone's private life. Sixsmith is obviously a fairly decent fellow, not one of the tabloid snoopers that Coogan so despises in real life. His career as a journalist took him to Washington and Moscow and when he decides to have a go at a human interest story, he is careful not to exploit Philomena but instead turns the story into an investigation and expose of a terrible wrong doing.


While the ethics of this kind of journalism is touched upon, with Sixsmith encouraged to find the 'best' story by his cold, calculating editor, most of the rage presented in the script is reserved for the Catholic church. Though Philomena the character is an incredibly sweet soul who will never blame, hate or crucify the Catholic church and in particular the nuns who wronged her so spectacularly, Philomena the film feels filled with the righteous anger that Sixsmith and every member of the audience is likely to feel by the end.

The script piles on revelation after revelation and it would be a shame to reveal its many secrets. Philomena and Sixsmith travel to Washington after finding out that the lost boy was adopted by an American couple. It is never black and white like the stories Sixsmith's editor wants with heroes and villains and happiness or tragedy. Both happiness and tragedy are found during their search and though there does appear to finally be a very great evil at the heart of the story, Philomena's response to it reveals the kind of woman she is.


Dench gets to have a great time bringing the charming Philomena to screen. Whether boring Sixsmith to tears with her retelling of romance novels or admitting that she didn't know she had a clitoris, she is frequently hilarious. Beneath her naivety however is a steely resolve, fierce bravery and unexpected smarts. She is a brilliant character and Dench delivers hilarity and heartbreak perfectly. Watch her excitement when she learns Sixsmith once met her son in Washington and weep as her face falls at other revelations. It is a layered performance that could easily have been one note and simply had a good laugh at the expense of the character.

Philomena is a brilliantly written script with an unforgettable character who has an incredible story to be told. While it takes potshots at journalism and the church, it is ultimately an inspiring story of forgiveness. Dench and Coogan make a hilarious double act with Coogan unexpectedly playing the straight man but it is the tragedy of Philomena's treatment at the hands of the nuns that will linger longest in the memory.

Stick around! Please enjoy some more reviews from I Love That Film:

Dallas Buyers Club

12 Years A Slave

American Hustle

All is Lost

The Railway Man

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Captain Phillips

Saving Mr. Banks