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Film Review: Philomena (2013)

Philomena tells the true story of Philomena Lee who, in her teens, had a baby out of wedlock, was subsequently seen as a ‘fallen’ child and was disowned by her family. She was sent to a Magdalene home in County Tipperary, forced to endure hard labour, and only allowed to see her baby son for an hour a day.

Review by Jamie C

One day, however, a well-to-do couple turn up in an expensive car and take her son away.  Distraught, Philomena (Judi Dench) is told to forget all about it and get on with her life – which she does until her son’s 50th birthday, when the secret and the burden of not knowing what happened to him becomes too great and she seeks to track down her lost son. What happened to him? Did anybody care about him? Did he ever think about Philomena?

Philomena’s teenage back story alone would provide enough heart-wrenching material for a series of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach movies, but this isn’t the ultimate avenue we end up going down.

What happens is that the film takes the clever turn of partly cyphering her story through the eyes of BBC journalist and one-time Labour spin doctor, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) – on whose book the film is based – whose career came to an unedifying end over leaked emails and smear campaigns.

Sixmith – recently unemployed when he hears of Philomena’s story from her daughter at a party – is initially disinterested, more enthused about writing a book about Russian history than pooling his journalistic efforts into a human interest story.  But return to journalism he does, partly to get back into work but also  partly as an act of personal redemption after being mired in the sleazy world of back-stabbing politics.

Steve Coogan

Screenshot from trailer

Sixsmith’s apathy soon evolves into a deeper, more compassionate empathy for the story – which he sees has the potential to cover all the angles of a meaty journalistic scoop, but comes to see the deeper, more resonant implications that evolve from his and Philomena’s mismatched and complex friendship.  It’s an odd couple chemistry that works brilliantly.

The scenes of the children being taken by their newly adoptive parents as their mothers cry helplessly behind locked gates are deeply upsetting. Unquestionably, the whole Magdalene saga – an institution based on power, self-loathing, hatred and spite under the dubious pretence of being in the name of God – was powerfully denunciated in Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters.

But they held their own guilty secret, and in essence were nothing more than self-perpetuating baby factories that sold on children to wealthy Catholic Americans, manufacturing countless lies, deceit and cover-ups to hide the truth.

But the film doesn’t use its emotional hook to manipulate us into some easy, lachrymose sentimentality. Rather it’s the initial reluctance on both protagonists’ part, and the early distance between the two, that allows the movie to segway into something far more naturally and emotionally affecting as the realities of the true, shameful circumstances play out.

Dench is sensational as Philomena, graceful and poised, passionate and fiery. There’s a real delight and charm in her fish-out-water experiences when she travels to America, and her penchant to Mills and Boon romance novels provides much of the comic fodder (and much of Sixsmith’s laconic chagrin).

Judi Dench

Screenshot from trailer

When given the chance, Coogan is an excellent actor, and here – also serving as co-writer and producer – is on top, impeccable form, crafting a performance of perception, dignity and restraint. It’s expertly played, low-key, opaque even, but also tinged with occasional simmering bitterness and anger beneath the surface.

The subtleties, nuances and subtexts of the script are deftly handled by director Stephen Frears, who skilfully blends biting social commentary, the history of unforgivable religious conduct, humour, and subversive British pathos with a deft and sophisticated hand.

It’s a film that makes its points not with an obvious hammer-blow but with a poignant and affecting lightness of touch, and plays out a sucker-punch of a final twist that will leave you with a lump in your throat.

VERDICT: 4/5

A triumph of British filmmaking. A comedy with real heart, passion, soul and sophistication, anchored by two superlative performances by two national treasures. Come BAFTA time, this will be showered with awards.

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