A British dark horse for awards season, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan go on a pond hopping adventure to find out about her lost son in an emotional but comedic drama in Philomena. But does it have a shot at gold? 411's Terry Lewis investigates
Judi Dench - Philomena Lee Steve Coogan - Martin Sixsmith
As we're starting awards season right about this time, it's interesting to see those talked up strut their stuff and also have some dark horses pop their head round the door so we can appreciate some quality cinema. How about we check in with what us Brits are chucking in to the mix with a dark horse offering in Philomena? Surely a true story adaptation of a journalist and a little old Irish lady tracking down the son taken from her 50 years ago has winner potential all over it?
Disgraced British Government spin doctor and former journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) is depressed. Thinking about writing a book on military history and being guffawed at by his peers, he's down until he speaks to a waitress at a party. Her mother Philomena (Judi Dench, Skyfall) had a teen pregnanacy in Ireland 50 years earlier, which was strictly taboo back then. Disgraced and sent to a magdalene convent run by Nuns to serve out her penance, she was forced to sign away her parental rights to her son who was adopted. Worried about what ever come of him in the modern day, Philomena and Martin set off across both sides of the pond to find out what happened to her son all those years ago.
Dench seems to have settled into typecasting herself with the comedic old lady nowadays with her recent output but she is the best anyone could be at this role. She's allowed to shackle off the chains and unleashes most of the film's heart as Philomena. Essential a nice old lady who just wants to know what happened to her son, Dench's performance adds to what you would think a simple basic role with a natural naivety and innocence in a winning role. Her clashes with the religious faith she's always kept strong to what happens to her son are insightful and her reactions alone are worthy of merit. Her Oirish accent is a bit squiffy though but when she gets round to dropping the feck-bomb, it's alright.
It stuns me that despite having his comedy character he's most famous for (the insecure and narcissistic chat show parody Partridge) getting the big screen treatment, Coogan is far much funnier in this sharp performance. As Philomena is based on Sixsmith's book about the real life story and meetings finding out about Philomena's son, Coogan plays up to the journalistic aspect of the character with acts like taking two pictures for the articles he's writing (one of a nice, good outcome to the story, one more neutral... just in case) and retaining a put down wit which is constantly in force. Such aspects make you think he's a horrible man, but at the end of the film you appreciate it's also Sixsmith's journey to get back on the horse and on with his life by helping out Philomena in any way he can. Just look to the second visit to the church and prove me wrong.
You'd be forgiven that Philomena's son would be a bit of a macguffin since finding out what happened to him is the plot of the film but we actually go into great detail to make him into a well rounded character, even if he spends most of it off screen. I don't want to give too much away but it's engrossing to find out what fairly prominent government role he falls into and his life story is expanded on such a way, he becomes the essential third character in this story, instead of a minor thing.
One of Philomena's successes lies in the comedic beats gently banging away throughout the runtime. Whether it's Coogan's Sixsmith dishing out a snappy bite back at a friendly buffet diner waitress offering him a variety of pancakes after politely declining (she deserved it) and Philomena's recounting a trashy romance novel completely to Sixsmith before naively offering it to him to borrow. The comedy is so good, it keeps itself upbeat and doesn't bog the film in the overly serious tone it has to go through in the end to create a genuinely heartwarming style.
However, the best success is the brilliant theme of the film – dealing with one's personal values whilst going up against one's faith. Philomena deals with her faith in catholism and God being swiped and nicked by her treatment in the church and Nuns she put herself in care of before her baby was taken away with emotionally devastating results. In the end, it deals with a delicious clash of styles with one of the nuns unrelenting in her faith and her and supposedly God's judgement of Philomena and the fallout from that. Whilst morally we would all say it would be harsh to say the least, this Nun holds onto it for life, despite the fact in today's modern society we have shunned the previous actions of Magdalene institutions. Despite this, in the film's emotional climax, Philomena's reaction is so accepting it would have anyone in tears. Even with Sixsmith's tearing into the Nun for her ill treatment and their dodgy actions (like what they do to Philomena's son), Philomena is unstoppable with agreeing with what happens at the end though her faith in a downbeat but powerfully moving finish.
There was one thing which dampened my enjoyment. The pacing in Philomena could have done with some much needed care. It feels like we're listing events off a chart. So we've covered this bulletpoint and that bulletpoint and this bulletpoint and that bulletpoint and this bulletpoint. To says it's a flowing stream of decent pace is wrong. It feels like a torrent building up behind a dam, wrecking through it before going to the next one. At places there's hardly anytime to sit back and soak up the beautiful emotional twists given to us. File under a case of not a great page to script adaptation of Sixsmith's original book.
The 411: I implore you, no, BEG you to see this movie. Philomena delivers an emotional tidal wave between two very likable performances from Dench and Coogan. This pond hopping experience delivers what it says in the remit and then some. To be honest, I only knocked a point off the score to your right because I personally did not like the pacing. That tells you how good this film is. An easy award contender which may not be fully recognized sadly is still worth your time in an emotional seriously yet comedically whimsical slugfest.