From Stephen Frears, director of The Queen, comes this sensitive film about a mother’s lifelong search for her stolen child. Philomena Lee’s son was taken from her by nuns at Roscrea convent in 1952. Although Frear’s film takes us back to these harrowing moments in flashback, his film centres on the time Philomena (Judi Dench) spent with former BBC news correspondent Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) investigating her son’s abduction, following a chance encounter with the journalist in 2004.
Despite its weighty subject matter, Frears’ film has compelling watchability thanks to the lightness of its screenplay from Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Mrs Biggs). The clash of cultures between Philomena and Sixsmith is palpable but never leads to unbearable tension, rather a few prize titters. ‘I now know what a lifetime of reading romance novels, the Reader’s Digest and the Daily Mail can do to the human brain’, says Sixsmith after a day spent with Philomena. Yet when she breaks free from her unworldliness - and she frequently does - Philomena challenges Sixsmith’s expectations of older people and our own. It’s not a new idea, but in the hands of Dench and Coogan it feels fresh as a Spring daisy.
The cynical role of Sixsmith suits Coogan well and his definitive facial expressions add another delicious layer to the story. While the film’s most amusing moments are given away in the trailer, what viewers ultimately take away from Philomena is the intensely moving story at its heart. The emotional impact of Frears’ film is strong and Dench does a stand out job in a challenging role, balancing Philomena’s carefree nature with pangs of guilt and regret.
That Philomena manages to explore themes of religion and forgiveness without feeling heavy is a testament to Coogan and Pope’s sharp script. The horrific events are seamlessly set against Philomena’s strength of character. As she devours romantic novels and recounts them to Sixsmith, we are reminded both of reality’s contrasting injustices and Philomena’s wonderfully upbeat nature. Backed by a whimsical score from Alexandre Desplat, the tone of Frears’ film is divine.
Meanwhile, Coogan and Pope’s script brilliantly draws attention to the cut-throat world of journalism through Sixsmith’s interaction with his publisher. Philomena’s struggle is boiled down to a gem of a journalistic story and, as the search for her son ploughs on through its twists and turns, Frears gives us a powerful sense of what it was like to be part of the revelations.
It’s no surprise that this journalistic treasure also makes for a gem of a British film. With Frear at the helm and Coogan and Dench in the spotlight, Philomena beautifully balances the uplifting and the weighty. A must see British film of the year with a story that should not be forgotten.
Running Time: 98 minutes