The Watchers

The Watchers

Friday, 24 January 2014

Review: Philomena (UK Cert 12A)

A surprise contender for the Best Picture Oscar this year (for me, anyway), Philomena is a relatively low-budget British film directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters).

Political journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is looking for a new direction after losing his job. A chance meeting at a party leads him to the incredible story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a woman who- fifty years earlier- had her son taken away from her (and later adopted) whilst she was living at a convent. Initially unsure if he wants to take a 'human interest' story, Martin relents and agrees to help Philomena look for her long lost son. This is not just a film about a woman's search for her lost son. It's a finely wrought drama (with some moments of comedy) which touches on the themes of loss, family, and faith and throws a few surprises in along the way for good measure.

Judi Dench gives an outstanding performance in the title role (no surprises there). It's a performance of great restraint and dignity. Her Philomena feels like a sweet little old woman, chatty and friendly. Quite a bit of the humour comes from her being put in fish-out-of-water scenarios or just saying something innocuously outrageous (there's a good example of this in the trailer). Some critics have seen this as the film sneering or poking fun at the character, but I never felt that the tone was mocking or they were going for the cheap or easy laugh. 

Steve Coogan also proves his acting chops as the disillusioned Martin. Put all thoughts of Alan Partridge aside. Initially coming off as a bit smug and self-satisfied, a little curmudgeonly and patronising, he mellows as the story goes on. Almost the polar opposite of Philomena, he's a cynical athiest with no time for the Catholic church. The two form a bit of a chalk-and-cheese Odd Couple but the rapport between the two is quite lovely.

The script- adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith's book- is decent and well-paced, if it does veer to the overly preachy or polemical when it starts to discuss the big topic of religion. What happened to Philomena- and hundreds, if not thousands, of other young women- was horrendous; callous cruelty masquerading as Christian charity. For the most part, the film portrays this almost neutrally but the final showdown (if you like), however, does threaten to tip over into tubthumping as Martin verbally lays into one of the nuns. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that Philomena is still a person of incredibly devout faith despite the mistreatment she received at the hands of the Church.

It's not a perfect film, but it's a remarkable story (made even more so because it's true, although some dramatic license has been used) and another great performance by Judi Dench. For fans of British drama, it's well worth an hour and a half of your time.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


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