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
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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”.


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 

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


Thor: The Dark

World (12A)

Directed by: Alan Taylor

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Christopher Eccleston

* *

If there’s one lesson Marvel should take from the fact that the Joss Whedon-directed Avengers Assemble and the Shane Black-helmed Iron Man 3 both currently rank among the top five grossing movies of all time, it should be this: it pays to have a great script. Sadly that’s a lesson that clearly wasn’t learned in time for Thor: The Dark World.

Instead, this sequel to 2011’s goofily entertaining origins story feels like a flabby franchise filler designed to keep the Marvel machine moving

until the next Avengers movie. Set a year on from The Thing in New York®, it finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) back in Asgard battling a sinister new nemesis called Malaketh (Christopher Eccleston) whose determination to get his hands on yet another world-threatening energy source is threatening to bring an end to the Seven Realms of...well... who can really tell? Suffice to say, this plot reunites Thor with his beloved Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), but any chemistry appears to have evaporated. As has any genuine wit. It thus falls to Tom Hiddleston’s magnificent Loki to save the day, and he almost does, despite being on lockdown for much of the film.

The Nun (15)

Directed by: Guillaume Nicloux

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Pauline Etienne, Martina Geddeck, Louise Bourgoin

* *

If movies teach us anything this week it’s that nuns are evil. The second of this week’s nun-themed films (see also Philomena) comes replete with torture, violence, lesbianism and rebellion – descriptors that suggest it might have crossed into nunsploitation territory (that’s a real subgenre, I promise), but which don’t really paint an accurate picture of the severe, austere atmosphere director Guiluame Nicloux deploys to tell this story of a young girl forced into a life of servitude in the convent. Adapted from Denis Dideron’s posthumously published 1790 novel of the same name, The Nun revolves around Suzanne (Pauline Etienne), a bright, young woman whose parents send her to a convent to atone for the perceived sin of her illegitimate conception.

Once there, she makes an already bad situation worse by refusing to pretend that she’s had “the calling”, an act of rebellion that brings upon her the wrath of the mother superiors, whose collective hypocrisy her idealism only serves to further expose. Though the film draws parallels with the abusive power structures of the church then and now, it’s Etienne’s performance as Suzanne – and a deranged last-act turn from Isabelle Huppert – that commands attention, just not enough to make the film worth enduring.

Drinking Buddies (15)

Directed by: Joe Swanberg

Starring: Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston

* * * *

Prolific mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg – this is his 15th film in eight years – edges ever closer to the mainstream with Drinking Buddies, a lo-fi relationship comedy that successfully uses some of the tropes of the rom-com without forcing its characters to adhere to those conventions. That will almost certainly throw those expecting more traditional fare for a loop, especially since his protagonists, microbrewery workers Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), are archetypal best friends, clearly attracted to one another, yet stuck in relationships with other people.

Swanberg likes defying expectations, though. Thus, when a weekend away with their significant others results in Luke’s long-term girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) being unfaithful with Kate’s not-overly-committed partner Chris (Ron Livingston), the film doesn’t bother counting down the clichés until our protagonists discover the betrayal and get together themselves. Rather, the largely improvised film evolves into a much subtler and more poignant exploration of infidelity and whether Kate and Luke’s emotional connection might not count as a more serious affair. All of this is implied and hinted at rather than explicated, allowing the actors – particularly Wilde – to dig deep and show what they can do. It’s a fine example of funny, truthful filmmaking.

Gloria (15)

Directed by: Sebastián Lelio

Starring: Paulina Garcia, Sergio Hernández, Diego Fonecilla

* * * *

Where British and American films about middle-aged sexuality tend to have an unbearably smug and self-congratulatory tone, regardless of their relative merits as actual films – see the recent Le Week-End or Hope Springs for two such encounters from either side of the Atlantic – this Chilean effort has a more refreshingly matter-of-fact approach to the issue. It’s the story of a 58-year-old divorcee – the eponymous Gloria, magnificently played by Paulina Gracia – who has decided she wants to try having another relationship.

A regular on the singles scene, she soon finds that she has no problem attracting men – she’s just not sure whether they’re the right men. That’s soon put to the test when she embarks on a tentative relationship with Rodolpho (Sergio Hernández), a recent divorcée crazier about her than she is about him. Though this is it in terms of plot, what follows is a fine character study of someone who is at a stage in her life where knowing the difference between a desire for a relationship and a desperation not to be alone is becoming harder to work out.

Milius (15)

Directed by: Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson

* * * *

It’s hard not to be seduced by the uber-macho legend of John Milius and this entertaining documentary about the Apocalypse Now screenwriter certainly doesn’t stint on the stories that have helped sustain the mythos. Whether it’s punching out a film school professor for refusing to screen his pal George Lucas’s THX 1138, or taking a gun to a meeting with a Hollywood executive, there are plenty of verified accounts of his crazy behaviour to justify his larger-than-life persona.

But in interviewing his family and friends – Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Harrison Ford are just some of the names providing insights – directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson chip away at the myth, both to explore why he cultivated this image and to remind us of the sheer scope of the work, some of which ranks among the most well-known in movie history.

Going into production shortly before Milius suffered a stroke, the film can’t help but take a poignant turn in its final third (particularly as he was gearing up for a big comeback after being ostracised by the industry and bankrupted by a crooked accountant). But in keeping with this manliest of filmmakers, things never get mawkish.