Based on an incredible true story, ‘Philomena’, directed by Stephen Frears, tracks a mother’s search for her long-lost son nearly fifty years after he was brutally taken away from her, with the help of a disgraced journalist. Judi Dench stars as Philomena Lee who was sent to the Sacred Heart convent in Roscrea after falling pregnant at a young age, and was forced to sign away parental rights. After keeping her first born a secret for decades, believing she had committed an unforgivable sin, she meets former Labour party advisor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who is seeking a fresh new direction after very publicly losing his political position due to his controversial words being taken out of context, and they embark on an investigation which takes them further than they could ever imagine. Exploring themes of religion, forgiveness and redemption, the factual account is beautifully told, helped by a strong script and even stronger performances.
Coogan takes script writing duties as well as producing and of course co-starring, and this is very evident in the dialogue between Sixsmith and Lee. A balance is accomplished between the serious nature of the subjects tackled and an almost Partridgean humour which is laced through key scenes, with Dench expressing a knack for natural comic timing showing the fragility and naivety of her character. Their friendship blossoms after a slow start because as Sixsmith assists Lee, she also helps him as he welcomes the distraction, choosing Philomena’s ‘human interest’ story in an attempt to win back readers, rather than beginning a novel on Russian history which he initially considers when he is left in need of a new career path.
Aside from the brilliant conversational scenes, Frears directs in documentary fashion at times, using found footage style fragments to accompany the globetrotting mission, revealing a little more bit by bit, teasing and shocking the audience while leaving every turn unpredictable. The flashbacks of a young Philomena are also well handled in providing a lengthy character arc and how her dark past living with the evil nuns has left deep personal scars on her outlook of life. The portrayal of the wicked sisters is typical yet harrowing with Barbara Jefford impressive as the cruel Sister Lindegarde who played a pivotal role in Philomena’s fate. Her strict religious background clashes with Sixsmith’s atheist views, coming from Coogan’s own mindset as he boldly rubbishes organised religion and those who conform to it. His anti-religious rants are both impactful and very funny, and his eloquent way with words reflect the intelligence of the film. Dench is equally effective, her reactions to the narrative twists are heartfelt and hard hitting, packing emotional punches that brought me close to tears on more than one occasion.
‘Philomena’ is a huge storytelling achievement, developed from Sixsmith’s book ’The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’, offering a weighty, well judged adaptation. This marks a fitting end to a remarkable year for Steve Coogan, rounding off a series of well measured performances in films including The Look of Love, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and the wonderful What Maisie Knew, displaying his versatility to switch between serious turns and the comedic roles which he is perhaps better known for, given his TV background. This may be an exciting sign for things to come in an acting career that hasn’t received deserved recognition thus far but working with veterans like Dench can only improve his reputation. He has certainly established himself as my actor of the year, in a powerful picture that goes down as my film of 2013.