When first briefed on his potential assignment, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) scorns at the insincerity of ‘human interest stories’ and the sort of people who read them. He has a point. Writing about a person’s real life experience in a magazine can read as frothy and at worst exploitative (whether on the part of the subject or on the emotions of the reader) and in the same way any motion picture ‘based on a true story’ often comes across as disingenuous. There’s so much to admire about
Philomena and that’s largely down to a pair of quality leading performers and a script which shows great dexterity, balancing between light humour and real life horror, culminating in powerful drama.
Evil nuns and an embittered journalist appear to be an unlikely combination for such a genuinely funny and heartfelt movie. Judi Dench is magnificent as a gentle Irish soul trying to track down her son, who she was forced to put up for adoption having become pregnant as an unmarried teenager and thus forced work in one of the Irish Republic’s penitential Magdalene laundries. In a genuinely agonising flashback we see Philomena watch helplessly as her toddler is adopted by a Catholic-American couple, with approval from the not so benevolent nuns, who profit from the fates of these vunerable young women and children. Beating on the glass from an upstairs dormitory, no one can hear her, nor do they care as the car drives off and her little boy will never see her again. On her son’s 50th birthday, Philomena finally decides she wants to do something about this grave injustice and find her boy, encountering Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a cynical ex-hack and former New Labour spin doctor who laments the way he recently was forced from his job but reluctantly agrees to help her track down her son and write an article about their discovery.
Every expression on Judi Dench’s face is a joy to behold. Philomena doesn’t carry around the burden of bitterness but possesses a peaceful desire to find personal comfort and perhaps expose the mistakes of the past. Her exchanges with Sixsmith (including a lengthy retelling of the romantic novel she’s been reading while riding an airport buggy) are a joy to behold and they work wonderfully together as an odd couple on a shared journey. As a duo, their relationship isn’t overwritten but it’s conveyed through their performances. Coogan is as good as I’ve seen him, with a really intelligent, sharp performance, shrugging off expectations of Partridge to really create a character with a viewpoint which feels sincere without needing to know much of his past. Both characters connect emotionally with the search quite differently, which allows for some fabulous dialogue soaked in humour and sadness. Of course it is based on a true story, but it’s such a remarkable true story that the narrative plays with the viewer’s expectation and builds up to a strong conclusion. There’s nothing sanctimonious about Philomena, but it’s a great story of courage and honesty.
Review by David Rank
Philomena is out on 1st November in the UK and 27th November in the US. Running time 98 mins. Certificate 12A (UK).