Steve Coogan and Judi Dench star in quiet and touching drama about a woman searching for her long lost son
What with Paul Raymond bio The Look of Love, US indie What Maisie Knew and the big screen outing for Alan Partridge, it’s been a fruitful year for Steve Coogan. Yet top of the pile might just be Philomena, which has already seen him and co-writer Jeff Pope awarded Best Screenplay at the recent Venice Film Festival, where the film practically brought the house down. What’s more, with Coogan playing BBC political journalist Martin Sixsmith, it represents a significant step away from his comedy roots.
Based on Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and directed by Stephen Frears, the crux sees Sixsmith encounter Philomena (Judi Dench), an Irish Catholic who has kept a secret for fifty years. Half a century earlier, when Philomena was a teen, she fell pregnant and her family had her put away in a convent; after giving birth, the nuns forced her to give her child up for adoption.
Initially sceptical, making it clear that he doesn’t do ‘human interest’ stories, Sixsmith eventually relents, setting out to help Philomena look for her son. What they find is both surprising and touching, but never sentimental (despite Philomena’s passion for trash romantic fiction). Dench ably proves her comic timing is just as deft as Coogan’s – notably with her wide-eyed wonder at the hotel turn-down service when their search takes them to America.
Reuniting with Dench following 2005’s Mrs Henderson Presents, Frears directs events in his usual unfussy, unpretentious manner – letting the actors explore the scenes to the max. What will surprise most, perhaps, is Coogan’s thoughtful turn, as an impartial newsman who becomes incensed by his discoveries. Dealing with issues of faith and forgiveness, it may lack the potency of Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, but it’s own quiet way, Philomena is just as powerful.
General release from Fri 1 Nov.