Former journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) finds himself at a career crossroads and wants to fall back into his previous profession, although he is unsure how to do so until he is introduced to Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Philomena is an Irish woman who fell pregnant at a young age, and was sent to live in a Magdalene Laundry. She was forced to give her son up for adoption, and has been searching for him ever since.
To Irish audiences, the story of Philomena is a familiar one. Over the past 15 years, there have been countless stories revealed of the children who were brought up in Church run institutions. Philomena takes a different turn, however, by focusing on the mother of one such child and her quest to find him.
It should come as no surprise that Judi Dench is fantastic as Philomena; Dench is a wonderful actress, but she has a deep understanding of Irish women, since her mother was from Dublin. Dench is known for playing strong, dignified women and her performance here is no exception; she instils Lee with calmness and forgiveness, while expertly blending this with a mischievous sense of humour. Her comic timing and one-liners are marvellous, and she carefully balances this with tragedy and loss. Oh, and her Irish accent is pretty gosh darn great.
Steve Coogan is normally seen on screen playing characters who are larger than life, but he plays an unusually reserved role in Philomena; as the man who opens the doors that Philomena has so often found to be shut. Coogan and Dench are the perfect foil for one another; the spark off one another incredibly well, giving the film first conflict, then warmth. As the film evolves, so does their friendship, which is warm and engaging.
The film is based on a true story, one that so enamoured Coogan that he co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope. The script not only captures the essence, and entire scenes from the book, but it mixes wry humour with emotional depth, pitting a simple woman against an educated but sometimes disconnected man. The decision to focus on Philomena’s story, rather than that of the child she has lost is a strong one, as it gives the film a different angle, and allows Dench and Coogan to come to the fore. This odd couple road trip movie then becomes a journey of discovery and friendship.
Director Stephen Frears also has an Irish connection; this is the filmmaker who brought us The Snapper and The Van. Frears also directed Dench in one of her many Oscar nominated performances; Mrs Henderson Presents. Frears directs with a light hand, and this Irish connection, combined with an existing relationship with one of the lead actors gives the film a delicate feel. Frears never strays into over sentimentality, and this allows the emotional aspects to pack an even deeper punch.
Philomena is a respectful, funny and tragic film that examines an aspect of Irish culture that went ignored for too long. Coogan and Dench have wonderful chemistry together, with Coogan’s understated performance one of his strongest yet. At a neat 98 minutes, the running time ensures that the film does not over stay its welcome and the sentimentality is never overplayed, but Philomena is a film that will linger long after the credits have rolled.