Running time: 94 minutes
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Dame Judi Dench, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley and Steve Coogan
(Movie House Dublin Road Preview Screening 28/10/2013)
VIEWER’S first impressions might have them thinking that Stephen Frears’ latest release is a film that screams Oscar-bait for the upcoming awards season. Thankfully however, this heart-tugging real-life drama lacks any of the usual trappings you’d expect from those kind of films. Despite it’s slightly televisual style, it’s presence on the big-screen is fully justified by two fine performances from the two central leads.
Dame Judi Dench stars as the film title’s aforementioned Philomena, a seemingly unremarkable Irish woman who has kept a remarkable and deeply personal secret quiet from her friends and family for over 50 years. During the 1950s in Ireland after falling pregnant from a one-night stand, the unmarried young woman and family disgrace found herself placed under the care of the nuns at a convent run by the Magdalene Sisters.
Working within the convent’s laundry, she was allowed to care for her young son until his inevitable adoption by an unknown American family and disappearing from her life completely. Philomena has always yearned to track down her son to explain her side of the story and the circumstances that led her to unwillingly give him up for adoption.
Enter Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), recently sacked as an advisor to the Labour Government and considering what to do next with his life. Although sceptical over the merit of ‘human Interest’ stories, a chance encounter with Philomena’s daughter at a party persuades him that her mother’s story might just be the career break he needs.
The two make an unlikely duo, with their differing personalities and opposing religious beliefs. Despite everything she has been through Philomena remains a deeply religious woman, much to the disbelief of Coogan’s cynical atheist character. The two are both searching for personal redemption as they embark upon a road-trip across America in search of Philomena’s missing son and friendship slowly blossoms.
Several critics have described the film as this year’s King’s Speech, both are outstanding British films based on true events, but in my opinion the comparison ends there. Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning King Speech was a truly remarkable film that left audiences cheering and applauding it’s finale and the announcement that the Second World War had just begun.
Frear’s film might have the same undercurrent of wry humour that was ever-present within Hooper’s film, but its final act is a much more divisive and moving affair. The finale will either leave viewers angry or deeply moved, dependent upon which of the two characters they found themselves identifying with throughout the feature.
Watching Philomena reminded me of what BBC film critic Mark Kermode once said about Frear’s Oscar-winning 2006 feature The Queen, claiming it had a real televisual look to it. The same can be said here, with a feature that would easily feel right at home on the television on a Sunday evening. But the two actors both give performances worthy of the big screen, that will be hard not to overlook come awards season.
As expected Dench is outstanding, with an effortless performance that personifies the stereotypical ‘Irish Mammy’. Imbuing the role with a mix of wisdom and naïveté, that makes her such a likeable and engaging character. Coogan competently holds his own onscreen against the Oscar-winning actress, and the two develop a fantastic onscreen chemistry . He plays it as un-Partridge-like as he possibly can, but still his character brings much of the so often needed comic-relief to the feature. His persistent mocking of Philomena’s quirks and mannerisms may be witty, but more than often the elderly Irish woman has the last laugh at his expense.
The British actor will never escape shadow of his iconic DJ comic creation, but his performance here is as far removed from Alan Partridge as I’ve seen the actor attempt yet. Credit must be given for his work on the film’s screenplay. Given its subject matter, the story could easily veered into pure melodrama, but just when it is on the verge of doing so, it pulls back with an injection of wry British humour.
After Frear’s underwhelming last feature, Lay The Favourite, it’s great to see him making a welcome return to form here. Ultimately this film’s greatest strength is its simplicity, it’s a powerful and heartfelt drama told in a straightforward and unfussy way that allows the performances of the two central leads to shine. Ironically considering Coogan’s involvement with the Hacked Off press regulation campaign, this heart-tugging drama will do more the image of journalists than it does for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Review By William McClean