This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th December 2013
Philomena is a gentle, based-on-truth story of injustice and heartbreak, headlined by two major stars, so audiences will understandably have high expectations. One word of warning: if you prefer your plot entirely unspoiled, avoid the movie trailer. In such a simple tale of a woman searching for her adopted son there aren’t that many lines of enquiry to follow, so your pleasure will be greater if you just let it unfold before you.
The screenplay was adapted from British journalist Martin Sixsmith’s investigative account of an Irish teenager who was forced by a convent to give up her baby boy in 1952. Sixsmith (here portrayed by comedian Steve Coogan) became caught up in the woman’s later life quest for truth, and their journey (which would seem improbable were it not based on fact) is rendered in poignant interactions and well-rendered flashbacks. Before the opening credits are over, a fierce nun is bellowing “Did you enjoy your sin??” and we are plunged into a tale less harrowing than The Magdalene Sisters but one which will nonetheless pique your outrage.
It’s interesting to see Steve “Alan Partridge” Coogan’s face being less facetious than we’re used to, and as a serious actor he moves impressively and convincingly into Stephen Rea territory. Judi Dench is her reliable self, Oirish and lovely – her Philomena occasionally comes across as a bit dopey yet also prone to amazing insights, and as a pair the duo are adept at delivering light-hearted laughs.
Director Stephen Frears has long proven he can turn his hand to anything from High Fidelity to The Queen, and while this is neither a complicated tale nor a sophisticated script, Coogan, Dench and their strong supporting cast ensure that this “human interest story’s” good intentions are not undermined.