I struggled to really pin down the genre of ‘Philomena’, there are so many different emotions and themes which are conveyed by the film. Moments of deep sorrow are immediately followed by scenes which will make you laugh through the tears. In essence however, ‘Philomena’ is a dramatic biopic which tells the true story of the horrors of Irish Catholic convents, where women are forced to abandon their children. This is the tale of our titular character, Philomena, who experienced such an ordeal, and thanks to Steve Coogan and Stephen Frears, her harrowing journey has been captured beautifully.
When Philomena (Dame Judi Dench) becomes pregnant outside of wedlock, her strict Catholic environment determines that she should enter the convent and live under the rule of the manipulative nuns to repent her sins. Whilst there, she enjoys rare moments with her young son Anthony. However, Philomena is unaware of the lies and deceit that become commonplace at the convent, where the young women’s children are arranged to be sold and never seen again. Years on, Philomena hopes to be reunited with her son and enlists the help of Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a journalist looking for his way back into the media after being dismissed in disgrace from his position in the Labour Party. Together, the two travel to the USA to track down Anthony, but we quickly learn that Anthony has passed away, a gutting moment that as a viewer we know is coming but one which still comes as a horrible shock. As Philomena and Sixsmith learn more about the late Anthony, Coogan portrays a journey of his own, from selfish, driven reporter, to a genuine, caring friend who helps unearth the truth about the events which occurred since Philomena had her son taken away from her.
Dame Judi Dench is absolutely sublime as Philomena. I think she is fantastic as M in the Bond movies, but as a polar opposite to the shrewd and confident woman in power, Dench unleashes a vulnerable and emotional portrayal of the tragic Philomena. The legendary actress really does the sad tale justice as our ‘heroine’, with an exceptional performance even by her own high standards. Due to my adoration of his work in bringing Alan Partridge to life, it would be easy to accuse me of having a vested interest in the performance of Steve Coogan, as I am generally a big fan of everything he does. But in ‘Philomena’, Coogan deserves every bit of praise I can give. As Martin Sixsmith, we see proof that Coogan is not just a comedy man, with moments of dry humour forming just a fraction of a performance which reveals a deeper, more emotional side to his repertoire. Add to this the fact that Coogan helped to write the screenplay for ‘Philomena’, and you cannot argue that the man of many talents has done a fantastic job at bringing the story to life.
Amongst themes of religion and sexuality lies an intensely poignant and gripping true story, a dark, dramatic tale which will make you laugh and cry in equal amounts. Dench and Coogan are first-rate, delivering moments of light-hearted humour to dull the pain of a truly upsetting film, a story which had to be told. Coogan’s own personal investment in the story really shines through and makes ‘Philomena’ as a whole, one of the most touching films I have ever watched.
DIRECTOR: STEPHEN FREARS
STARRING: DAME JUDI DENCH, STEVE COOGAN