Running Length: 98 minutes
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
The subject matter of Philomena may lead some to believe they’re heading for a gruelling couple of hours. This could not be further from the truth.
Dench plays the titular Philomena, a woman who survived years of servitude in a Magdalene convent after giving birth out of wedlock. Fifty years later, a chance meeting between Philomena’s daughter and newly disgraced political aide, Martin Sixsmith leads the pair on a journey to find the son Philomena lost so long ago.
Sixsmith is initially unexcited by the idea of investigating what he considers a fluff piece, but after meeting Philomena, something about her honesty and wit intrigues him. And once he starts researching her story, he becomes more and more excited about what he finds out about the child. The paper-chase leads them to the US where they are faced with some shocking revelations.
The joy of this film is in the way the viewer takes the journey alongside Sixsmith and Philomena. They are a mismatched pair, he a lapsed Catholic who embraces his atheism with as much fervour as Philomena still embraces her Catholicsm. He’s cynical and world-weary while Philomena finds such things as a breakfast buffet novel and exciting.
There are clear villains in the nuns who foil the pair at every turn. They initially tell them that all the convent’s records were destroyed in a fire, but it soon becomes clear that what they’re hiding is far more sinister. Babies were sold to families in the USA for large sums of money, including one sold to film star Jane Russell. I won’t go into detail about what happened to Philomena’s son here because it would ruin the story for you, but it is both poignant and startling.
Dench gives a thoroughly natural and nuance performance as Philomena. She’s damaged, witty, tragic and upbeat all at the same time as being an utterly radiant presence on screen. Steve Coogan is a worthy foil too. I’ve never liked him as an actor, but in this film I could almost warm to him.
While often desperately sad, you will not leave the theatre feeling depressed. Philomena has enough wit and charm to undercut the heavier moments, not depriving them of their depth and meaning, but offering levity and hope for the future.