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Film review: Philomena

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith. Picture: PA

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith. Picture: PA

At one point in this scrupulously middlebrow comedy/drama based on ex-journalist Martin Sixsmith’s account of his efforts to track down the long-lost son of a 70-something Irish pensioner called Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), Steve Coogan, playing Martin, announces that he “now knows what a lifetime of reading romance novels, the Reader’s Digest and the Daily Mail can do to the human brain”.

PHILOMENA (12A)

Directed by Stephen Frears

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Barbara Jefford

* * *

He’s referring to the reading habits of his slightly dotty travelling companion as they embark on a trip to America, but he could be referring to the film itself. It does, after all, follow neatly on from recent SAGA-courting sagas such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet and A Song for Marion, wilfully senile movies that spoon-feed audiences easy jokes about age, class and sex while spelling out their themes in simple-to-understand language.

What saves it from being as insufferable as those films, though, is Coogan and, depending on how generous you’re feeling, Dench. The latter certainly pushes her national treasure status to the limit in her portrayal of Philomena as a guileless Irish pensioner whose simple, good-hearted approach to life teaches the cynical, educated Martin a thing or two about the world. This odd couple are thrown together when Martin – still depressed after being sacked from his high-profile government job at the beginning of the film – is forced to return to journalism because his plan to write books on Russian history falls through as an alternate career path.

Deigning to lower himself enough to write a human interest story – because that’s what an editor friend tells him will sell – he takes up the cause of Philomena, who is desperately trying to find out what happened to the son she lost when the nuns in the convent to which she was sent in disgrace 50 years earlier put him up for adoption.

With those scenes shown in flashback, Dench is mostly called upon to behave in a way that’s supposed to be delightfully unpretentious, but frequently feels underwritten, if not a little condescending. Indeed having Coogan’s Martin repeatedly mock her often feels like a lazy way for the film to have its cake and eat it: we’re invited to laugh at her naivety one moment, then hiss at Martin’s snide comments and superior attitude the next, a strategy the film seems to be adopting as a whole when Martin’s little diatribes about the banality of human-interest stories create the (not very convincing) illusion that the film is critiquing the very thing it’s setting out to deliver.

That kind of meta-filmmaking can get annoying, not least because it’s also hard to find fault with Martin’s exasperation (at one point Philomena erroneously claims that Big Momma’s House “looks hilarious”). That, however, might simply be because, in spite of the title, the film seems to be more interested in Martin than Philomena.

With Coogan also serving as the film’s co-writer, he’s certainly snared himself the better lines, letting Dench score laughs with easy jokes while he gets to show growth and development as an actor. Consequently, it’s Martin, rather than Philomena, who ends up with the more satisfying journey in the film, one that embodies a good deal more shading than Dench’s Philomena is permitted. When Martin flies Philomena to Washington to follow up a lead about her son – the sort of all-expenses-paid press trip about which freelance journalists can probably only now dream – his worldliness may gradually be worn down by her homeliness, but Coogan never allows proceedings to get sentimental. It helps, of course, that he can latch on to indignation that Martin increasingly feels as he uncovers more information about what the Catholic Church did to Philomena – and the lengths to which it went to cover it up.

This also leads to an unexpected deepening of the film’s central relationship in the final reel as their chalk-and-cheese personalities begin to clash over the nature of forgiveness rather than played-out gags based on their differing backgrounds. In fact, the film – which isn’t in the least bit cutting edge – does benefit here from being directed by Frears. His no-nonsense approach, which can frequently lead to scenes that feel scrappy or undercooked, also ensures that the anger bubbling away just below the surface of Philomena’s story ultimately has nowhere left to hide when Martin and Philomena make a return trip to the convent in Rosecrea where their journey 
began.

This allows Coogan a moment of heroism and Dench a moment of quiet reflection, but more importantly, it allows Frears to pull off the inevitable happy ending the film has been building up to with a bit more grace and sophistication than previously anticipated.

Review by Alistair Harkness

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