DIR: Stephen Frears • WRI: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Valerio Bonelli • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • DES: Alan MacDonald • CAST: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Charlie Murphy, Simone Lahbib
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a “little old Irish lady”, enlists the help of cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to search for her son. Philomena gave birth to Anthony at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, from where he was given away for adoption without his mother’s permission. Philomena kept his birth a secret for 50 years, and the time has come to tell her story and find her son.
Philomena, as a film, is a remarkable achievement by all concerned, balancing humour, unexpected of its bleak tale, with an appropriate sense of anger. It’s also unafraid to ask bigger questions. Where to begin, to sing its praises?
Steve Coogan co-wrote the excellent screenplay with Jeff Pope, adapting Sixsmith’s 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Winning an award at Venice for their efforts, they have crafted a script that succeeds on many levels. It centres emotionally on Philomena’s longing to find out what happened to her son, her anguish at what might have become of him, worrying about whether or not he has ended up homeless, whether he might be alone or a junkie on the streets somewhere. This thread remains the heart of the film.
Philomena and Martin form an unlikely pairing as their inquiries take them back to Ireland and elsewhere. As a BBC correspondent working in Washington and Russia, Martin is used to hard news, travelling first class, and dealing with political horse trading. Philomena had worked as a nurse for 30 years and is used to a far plainer lifestyle. Martin’s cynicism contrasts with Philomena’s gullibility, and the clash of class, cultures and expectations provides much of the film’s warm humour.
Philomena’s story is, of course, a “human interest” piece, filled with heartrending drama. Not knowing what happened her son could end in tearful happiness or sadness. Either way, it will make good reading that Martin’s editor seeks to exploit. The film might also be accused of sensationalising its material, milking Philomena’s story for for its emotional worth, but the witty script acknowledges this in the way it incorporates Martin’s attitude both to his editor and to the distinction between hard and soft news. It’s a mark of the film’s ingenuity.
Steve Coogan contributes a commendable performance as Martin Sixsmith. The film opens with Martin attending the doctor, depressed following his dismissal as a government spin doctor, fired for something he didn’t say. His suggestion that he will write books on Russian history fails to impress his acquaintances, and he takes on Philomena’s story, seeing how easily and clichéd it would play out. As writer and performer, Coogan’s brings to his role aspects of his incarnation as Alan Partridge, sceptical and disparaging of popular journalism. But the film makes clear how such human stories are rooted in failures of institutions such as the Roscrea abbey. Martin’s anger as an outsider contrasts with Philomena’s more human approach to the Roman Catholic Church, its teachings and the nuns’ actions.
As Philomena, Judi Dench triumphs in a performance of subtle brilliance. Early in the film, she has little to say, but her wrinkled face registers Philomena’s anguish and concern. Often, she has little more to do than stare through a window as she remembers her time in Roscrea, glances at her daughter, feigns a laugh at Martin’s odd humour, but, through such small gestures, Dench makes Philomena her own, conveying the depths to which her worries have taken her. Essaying a convincing Irish accent, Dench has fun recounting longwinded summaries of inane romantic fiction. Philomena’s decision to seek out her son conflicts with the shame and guilt she feels as a result of the sins she committed. She struggles with the sin of having a child in the circumstances that she did and the sin of then keeping it secret. Dench excels in such a complex role.
In The Snapper, director Stephen Frears successfully captured the wicked Irish sense of humour, telling the tale of Sharon Curley’s pregnancy. In Philomena, he deals with far weightier themes. Martin and Philomena discuss their beliefs in god, and Martin tries to understand Philomena’s continued Catholic faith despite the nuns’ actions. She realizes that the adoption may have meant her son lived a life that she couldn’t have provided for him, while Martin argues that the nuns’ may have done what they did in pursuit of a profit, exploiting Philomena’s labour in the Magdalene laundry. The film is a brisk 98 minutes, but it’s dense and packs in a lot in its short running time. Frears succeeds in combining the solemn dramatic undertones with seriously good entertainment.
The figure of the nun has recently become something of a cinematic trope, representing fear, terror and unjust behaviour. The Magdalene Sisters played more like a horror film with no trace of the musical innocence of The Sound of Music or Sister Act. In Philomena, the abbey, a stark white building, looms into view as Martin’s BMW drives into the gardens under an iron archway. Sister Hildegard cuts an ominous figure as she glares out of the window in flashbacks. The film allows Sister Hildegard to defend the nuns’ actions, but it is likely to provoke anger. The teachings and morals she professes may once have dominanted Irish society, but they now ring hollow. The film’s presentation of the abbey and “evil nuns” feeds into the prevailing conception of the laundries as the Irish gulag system.
Philomena clearly deals with heavy issues, but deft direction, a skilful script, and, above all, adroit acting make for sophisticated entertainment that manages to amuse as much as it will enrage.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Philomena is released on 1st November 2013