After having a child out of wedlock, Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) was forced to give up her son by Catholic nuns. 50 years laters, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hears about Philomena’s story and helps her to search for her long-lost son.
When I wrote my review of Danish film The Hunt, I said that it made me incredibly angry, an emotion that very few films have evoked in me. However, it didn’t take too long for another film to do the same, and Philomena left me seething as I walked out of the cinema.
Philomena is another of those films inspired by a true story – it’s based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Steve Coogan’s character, journo Martin Sixsmith – and it’s this that makes the film all the more harrowing.
Without wanting to spoil anything, the film has its highs and lows, with certain groups portrayed less than favourably, namely journalists and the Catholic Church, and it’s the latter from which my anger emanated (although it’s not totally one-sided). What’s excellent, however, is that it doesn’t ram a particular message down your throat and, for the most part, lets you draw your own conclusions and pick your own side. At times it does feel slightly manipulative in trying to make you feel sympathy for Philomena when it really doesn’t need to; the general story does that by itself.
The two central performances of Dench and Coogan are fantastic and play off brilliantly against one another. For much of the film, they are very much ice and fire personalities, with Philomena’s simple, perhaps naïve, view of the world contrasted with Sixsmith’s much more negative (albeit probably realistic) view.
Despite the title, Philomena is just as much Sixsmith’s story as the titular character’s. At the film’s outset, we see him unsure of whether he’d stoop as ‘low’ as a human interest story but by the end we really see a transformation, and it really adds an extra dimension to the film. It would have been easy to just solely focus on Philomena but Sixsmith’s story is almost as compelling.
And what’s somewhat surprising is just how funny the film is. Coogan’s touch is all over the script (some lines could come straight out of Alan Partridge) and both main characters get their fair share of laugh-out-loud lines. It’s similar in subject matter to Peter Mullen’s excellent The Magdelene Sisters but comes at it from a much more light-hearted (but no less heart-wrenching) angle. This humour is needed, too; without it, the film could be very dour and a little too heavy, so kudos to Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope for getting the balance just right.
After watching Philomena, you’ll likely side with one of the two main characters (I certainly did), and it’s this duality that the film hammers home, which should ensure almost everyone will come away with a different experience and opinion. It’s not always the happiest of films, but it’s filled with heart and at its most effective is one of the most powerful films of the year.