Philomena – Stephen Frears – Following the true story of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an Irish nun whose son was taken from her at an early age, Stephen Frears’ film (with a screenplay written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope) recreates her search in later life – driven by the journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan). Sixsmith is depicted as an opportunist; drawn to Philomena’s story not through compassion but through a cynical, occasionally tragic, desire to regain publication and vocational relevance through its ‘human issues’ tabloid potential. The journalist terrain of the ‘human issue’, an area he had, in less desperate times, condescendingly dismissed as “stories about weak and vulnerable people to be read by weak and vulnerable people”. Coogan brings a straight-faced control and restraint to the role, assuring his presence – though at times unlikeable – always remains enjoyable to watch. Philomena is just as sensitively portrayed in a predictably terrific, although not necessarily typical, performance from Judi Dench. Philomena exudes her wittering and humble compassion with a simple and grounded honesty, tempered with trembling reserves of Catholic guilt and her own silenced anxieties.
Both performances are consistently strong – and Coogan and Dench find a natural pace and chemistry together. Unsurprisingly, considering Coogan’s involvement in the writing, some of the best scenes are those of humorous bickering – often redolent of the comedy in Winterbottom’s film/series The Trip. While Philomena offers a competent adaptation of this true and unnerving tale, supplemented by decent acting and the capacity for gently musing on faith, truth and the prickling tensions between the two, it did leave me (perhaps due to the overwhelming critical praise) slightly underwhelmed. Not that there is any expectation of grandiose or awe inspiring cinema in such a film but that, by the end, it did seem frequently more akin to a plush TV drama, than the involving cinematic drama it occasionally inhabits. Additionally, I worried that the film’s ending had the potential, despite both Coogan and Dench’s excellent performances, to diminish character complexities in favour of comedic neatness. There were moments when Sixsmith’s bristling, smug education and Philomena’s grounded priorities of morality and politeness, became convenient archetypes taking license with the story’s realism. However this pedantic fault was less a flaw of acting than of the film’s more general edits. The score seemed at times insistently sentimental, in a way that seemed discordantly ‘cinematic’ – given the understated naturalism embodied by Coogan and Dench. There were also certain cuts and moments of emphasis that seemed to condescendingly privilege a gentle chuckle over the less comfortable emotions at play. Overall it was an acting triumph of the two leads over the less consistent style and direction. 6.5/10