Starring Judy Dench, Steve Coogan
What appeared to me like a light hearted “human interest” story, as the film refers, is actually full of heart and quite emotional when it gets down to it. Philomena is based on an extraordinary true story that is partly worth telling due to the type of circumstances one just can’t make up. Oscar winner Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are a brilliant pair in a script written by Coogan and based off the book his character wrote. There are some brilliantly funny moments, as well as those that will break your heart, often happening simultaneously. But this is a story that I feel would appeal to any and everyone due to the various topics it highlights, including the shameful practices of Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
For over 50 years Philomena Lee (Dench) has searched for her son that was taken from her when she was just a young girl and abandoned by her father and forced to live with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The guilt of her actions and keeping it a secret have led Philomena to seek out ex-BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who is in need of a job and a great story to deal him back into the journalism world. Together, the unlikely duo head to the States after learning that the covenant was selling the children to wealthy Americans. The more they discover about the son, the darker the story gets, and Martin becomes torn on whether to publish a piece about Philomena’s struggle.
A departure in character, Dench pulls off some great, subtle work here.
While Philomena is searching for her son, Martin is certainly discovering a new side of himself; he is the anti-hero to his new found elder friend who has a thing or two about manners to teach him. This is a beautiful story, told with really smart and witty dialogue from comedian Coogan and director Stephen Frears (The Queen). There are such wonderful little touches associated with Philomena, including how she describes croutons as “little pieces of toast” or how she tells everyone they are “one in a million”. There is this sweetness about her lack of education and confined upbringing that Dench just really understands. For the first time in a long time Dench is playing someone “old” and not her sly, intelligent Agent M or the ruthless teacher in Notes on a Scandal.
Dench’s only Oscar is for those controversial seven minutes in Shakespeare in Love; could Philomena be the role to win the dame her first lead actress Academy Award? I think Dench pulls off some great, yet perhaps subtle work here. It’s a departure for her, and in the kind of emotional territory she isn’t known to venture. Coogan is brilliant here as well, especially in one certain scene at the end where he defines “disgusting” that will have audiences roaring with supportive applause. For a “human interest” story, Philomena has lots of twists and surprises in the investigation that will keep you in awe throughout the entire movie. It’s the type of film you want to share with others because it’s a story that is ultimately about love and forgiveness.
Dench and Coogan and a delight and the story is “one in a million”.