Release Date: November 1st, 2013 (UK); November 27th, 2013 (US)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
It’s not often you watch a drama about the culmination of a woman’s fifty year search for her long lost son, and end up spending a significant amount of time laughing in the wake of an odd comedy duo. Settle down at the mercy of Stephen Frears’ Philomena though, and that’s exactly what’ll happen. At its heartiest the film flows with a sense of uncertain determination embodied in diverging ways by the two lead characters, but in between these moments of bottled up emotion, at its most organic, Philomena charms in tone and entertains by way of a banterous dynamic. This incredible story pitched excellently is often funny, occasionally shocking and always peculiar in believability, even if it does lose some legitimacy at its conclusion.
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) stares wholesomely into the eyes of a young gentleman pictured inside a piece of jewellery. It’s her son, Anthony, taken fifty years earlier and placed in the care of an American family. Philomena spent her younger years as part of an Irish Abbey, sent there by her disapproving father in a rebuttal to pregnancy. By chance, recently fired Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is in attendance at a party where he is approached by Philomena’s daughter who pleas to have her mother’s tragic tale exposed to the world. It’s a “human interest story”, or for Martin, a way back into the positive glares of journalistic limelight, and so he embarks on a journey of discovery and hope with Philomena.
At the centre of the film is this weird dynamic shared between Philomena and Martin, one driven by religion and faith (or, in Martin’s case, the lack thereof). Having been forcibly separated from her child in an act of apparent punishment, Philomena retains a staunch belief in God and moreover, treats the present day nuns — of which still includes the prominent Sister Hildegard, who was instrumental in said previous events — with respect and without any incrimination. The horrendous actions undertaken in 1951 are presented in a unsavoury manner, as they should be, by both the film itself and just about every character, from tainted journalist to boisterous pub owner (“What about the evil nuns, what’s happening with them?”). Yet Philomena valiantly, admirably, stands by her beliefs and wholly practices the forgiving teachings, ensuring the narrative never plumbs over into anti-Catholic territory.
On the other hand, Martin embodies the typical cynical reporter. He spends half of the time answering his elderly associate’s questions about believing in God (“No”) and the other half truly puzzled by Philomena’s strong-willed demeanour. The journalist, who experiences a moral realignment himself as the film canters on, publicly denounces Philomena’s inbuilt faith having never sincerely lived it — although he was an alter boy once upon a time.
These quizzical debates between the pair provide the catalyst for the film’s good-humoured underbelly. That, in tow with the chuckle-worthy “little old Irish lady” and business-like, trying-to-reignite-him-career journalist, together in America, heralds a jesty atmosphere. The pair are outwardly mismatched, yet they share an intrinsic desire to reclaim a significant loss in their respective lives. For Philomena it’s her son, whereas for Martin it’s his dignity and journalistic aura, which is probably why he constantly contemplates writing a book about Russian history, a cultivated topic if there ever was. His initial detachment broods a condescending resonance towards Philomena, whose fickleness in the face of sarcasm offers a few comedic titbits. While Martin discusses how to approach divulging the story with his callous editor, Philomena amazes over the “the size of the portions!” in America, claiming she always worried about her son’s weight. While fully endorsing laughter, director Stephen Frears never marginalises his at times serious approach to the subject matter, without which the film would lose authenticity given the harrowing happenings occurred in real life, as part of Philomena Lee’s actual existence. A healthy balance is essential, and Frears achieves one.
Our two main protagonists are, in essence, conventional characters — a dour, disenfranchised reporter and an energetic-yet-inconstant wee Irish lady — but given the film is based on a true story, on genuine people, it is right that these characters should be conventional to a degree. That way they are recognisable and relatable, in turn evoking emotion from the audience. Judi Dench is wonderful as Philomena, humming the full dramatic spectrum in the process. She exhibits an ardent perseverance, the same kind that any mother would typify in a search for her child. However, at the same time she always carries that homely quality, a charming awkwardness in a world far bigger than and increasingly alien to her. As Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan is the perfect folly, boasting a very valid ‘been there, done that’ attitude. Unlike Dench whose character is a straight-shooter from the off, Coogan often has to reign in his thoughts (probably for fear of a skelp from his elder) as he gradually warms towards Philomena, instantaneously to the audience directing a growing fondness in the direction of Martin and his changing intentions.
Along with Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan brilliantly co-wrote the screenplay based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Long Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The duo do an exemplary job in adapting book to the screen, a traverse that facilitates this witty, emotionally-tugging film. Nevertheless, there is a problem that arises near the very climax, one captured and dragged by the notion of dramatic licence. Dramatic licence, a function utilised by the industry’s best, creates tension where there may be none, or sprinkles a share of humour if it sorely lacks. In the case of Philomena, the dramatic licence becomes problematic because it goes beyond these constructed trivialities. There is a fabricated scene approaching the conclusion that is designed specifically to be a blow-off moment for Martin, but that resultantly, sadly, envisions a significant falsity. In a way the film takes an emotional liberty, the same kind that it spends ninety minutes preaching against. A disappointing blemish, but arguably the only one.
Martin Sixsmith, worried about his health, is told to run. This same deed is adhered to by Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, who collectively grab hold of Coogan’s delightful — if a tad tainted towards the end — script and run with it, creating waves of charm and seemingly incompatible comedy in the process. First and foremost though, this is a serious and harrowing story, and Frears ensures that it is treated as such. If you journey purely alongside the happenings on screen, not investigative of the climactic authenticity, Philomena might just tinge those emotions; the laughs and the cries.