Philomena (2013)

Philomena (directed by Stephen Frears) is a film based on the book by Martin Sixsmith about the true life story of Philomena Lee, who as a pregnant teenager, was forced into Roscrea Sacred Heart convent for four years.

There she worked seven days a week unpaid and saw her beloved son, Anthony, sold to a wealthy couple when he was three.

For fifty years Philomena kept Anthony a secret, even from her daughter.

Half of the film is set in Ireland and the other half in Washington, USA, where Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), attempt to track down Anthony.

This is an unusual film for Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote and produced the film). Coogan is a comedic actor and talented mimic, known for his roles often alongside Rob Brydon in films such as 2010’s The Trip. Philomena is a restrained, nuanced and high quality piece of writing.

The two are uncomfortable partners. Sixsmith is a jaded, cynical, archly atheist, and recently fired former Press Secretary in the Blair Government. He is mildly depressed and critical. Philomena is a religious, spade-calling and positive Dubliner who delights in romantic fiction and a good brandy.

From a long and steady diet of the Daily Mirror and Readers Digest, Philomena’s absorption of popular culture is used to good comedic effect, but not overdone. Her acceptance of other people’s choices, however damaging to her personally, is boundless yet believable.

Together the characters unfold, the familiar tedium of too much time together when travelling, their grating idiosyncracities and incongruent beliefs and attitudes. It’s a satisfying subplot that draws out the two by sitting them together so awkwardly while their journey uncovering Anthony’s life in Washington drives the narrative.

Coogan is deadpan and ironic as usual, but very likeable toward the end, especially his vitriol toward the Catholic Church and the nuns of Roscrea, feelings which Philomena can’t or won’t harbour.

In an ABC interview with Mary Guerrin, Dame Judi Dench,  said she could never be as magnanimous if it had happened to her.  She described the real Lee as “blazingly honest” and now a good friend.

This is a really nice film. The cinematography is delicate and effective. The soundtrack is also unobtrusive, which is refreshing, because I dislike being manipulated aurally with over-dramatic scores used as emotional ready-mix spac-filler. The film doesn’t resort to those things. Frears has again proved his directorial mastery of the art of restraint in evoking real emotion.

Four stars.