Film review: Philomena - Steve Coogan directs Judi Dench in one of her most memorable roles

5.00

Directed by Stephen Frears and starring Steve Coogan and Anna Maxwell Martin (12A, 98mins)

"You're talking about  a human-interest story," world-weary journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) sighs early on in Stephen Frears new film, Philomena.

It has just been suggested that he write an article about a woman who had a baby as a teenager and then kept it secret for 50 years. Such stories, Sixsmith believes, belong rightfully in women's weeklies. He's a heavyweight former political spin doctor who used to be the BBC's "man in Moscow". He doesn't stoop to such trivial fare – or wouldn't if his career wasn’t at such a low ebb.

Some audiences might feel the same suspicion toward the movie itself. This is an unabashed tearjerker that seems to belong to the Ladies in Lavender school of cosy British films that your granny might enjoy. It has Judi Dench in national treasure mode and plays up its own odd-couple elements shamelessly. Dench's Philomena Lee is a clucking old lady who reads the Daily Mail and enjoys a gossip. Coogan's Sixsmith is cynical and sardonic.

However, Philomena is so beautifully written and performed that it goes far beyond sitcom-style stereotyping. It is never patronising. As Sixsmith quickly discovers, and sceptical audiences will learn, too, there is every bit as much conspiracy, drama and complexity in the case of Philomena's missing child as in any of the "big" political stories that Sixsmith might once have worked on.

Philomena is based on actual events and exposes a very real injustice. The Catholic Church did take away Philomena's child as a toddler in the early 1950s and sell him for adoption. We see in flashback to early 1950s Ireland the short-lived and giddy romance that led to Philomena (played as a young woman by Sophie Kennedy Clark) conceiving her son. In scenes reminiscent of Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters (2002), Philomena is shown locked away in a convent with nuns who make sure she feels she has sinned. The fateful moment arrives when her boy is removed.

Tremendously played by Dench, Philomena is a strong-willed woman who generally likes to keep her emotions in check. She is not as well read as Coogan's Oxbridge-educated Sixsmith (who yearns to write dense history books), but has a common sense and kindness that he lacks. Dench gives the character a heroic dimension. She has her own prejudices and eccentricities – which the actress milks for maximum comic effect – but she is also utterly single-minded. For all her love of convoluted romantic novels and her superstitions, she is never the butt of the joke. Dench makes us aware of the huge grief and remorse that her character feels, but she also shows us Philomena's tenacity.

Given his own vexed relationship with the press, there is an obvious irony in Coogan playing a "nasty journalist" ready to doorstop potential interviewees, but he too excels. In comedy terms, he is often Dench's straight man. She gets the best lines while he is quietly sarcastic and hides his own feelings behind a veil of irony. His jokes bounce back at him. She doesn't understand what he is talking about and he is invariably the one left looking foolish.

Coogan co-wrote and produced the film, but the fact that he originated the project doesn't mean he ever tries to upstage his co-star. This is his third leading performance in films this year, after his turns as the Norfolk DJ Alan Partridge in Alpha Papa and the porn baron Paul Raymond in The Look of Love. His performance as Sixsmith is the least showy of the three, but also the most affecting.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in Philomena Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in Philomena Philomena develops into a road movie, as the odd couple make a quixotic journey to Ireland, to her old convent where the nuns still stick to their code of omerta, and then to the US in pursuit of the child who went missing half a century before.

Stephen Frears was brought on to Philomena relatively late in the project's development. He is the ideal director for material that could have seemed either horribly mawkish or flippant in other hands. Frears isn't above squeezing out the pathos from the film's climactic moments but he also brings a dry British understatement to affairs. It's as if the director realises that the story he is telling carries a huge emotional kick anyway and that there is no point in trying to heighten matters with self-conscious camerawork (beyond one or two harrowing close-ups of Dench looking utterly forlorn).

The humour is there in abundance in the screenplay (by Coogan and Jeff Pope) but the director pitches the film so that it doesn't trivialise Philomena's plight. Nor is the tone solemn or hectoring. The film shows the cruelty of the nuns, but Frears isn't interested in making an anti-Catholic diatribe. This is a human-interest story, after all, not a polemical documentary. Philomena herself is a forgiving type and Frears tries to reflect that.

In its own light-footed fashion, the film touches on weighty themes, including the abusive way in which unmarried mothers were treated in 1950s Ireland, and the plight of gay couples in Reagan and Bush-era America. There are asides about back-stabbing in British politics. (The film is set just after Sixsmith has been sacked as a spin doctor for allegedly trying to bury bad news.) This is also a story about exile and loss.

During her lengthy screen and stage career, Dench has played plenty of very strong women, Mother Courage, Lady Macbeth, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I and M among them. Compared to such figures, her character here may seem a little bit of a lightweight: an eccentric old lady on a quest. However, when it comes to Dench's most memorable roles, Philomena Lee ranks with the best of them – something that will surely be underlined when this year's awards season comes round.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy