In Ireland in the 1950s, unmarried teenage Philomena finds out that she is pregnant and is sent to Roscrea convent for 'fallen women' where she gives birth to a boy, who is given up for adoption. Philomena (Judi Dench) has spent fifty years searching for her child but finally asks for help from unemployed journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). The convent is no help - all they can find are damaged documents and nuns who won't say a word. Finally Martin gets a lucky break when chatting with a local pub owner who informs him that the convent sold babies to childless Catholic American couples, starting Philomena and Martin's journey to the United States.
One motivation for becoming a film critic is to see movies before other people, therefore lessening the chance of having one’s love of narrative surprise betrayed. But even critics have to contend with trailers. Some people live for them, but for many years, whenever I’m at the movies, I tend to close my eyes during trailers for films I haven’t seen. People might think I’ve got narcolepsy but I’m just trying to protect my approach to new films I’m watching as pristine as possible.
The trailer for Philomena seemed to be an excellent example of why anyone would develop such an approach. In an unguarded moment, and not knowing I would be reviewing it for this website, I saw the Philomena trailer. I immediately concluded I had no reason to see the movie because the trailer appears to fully reveal its content. Judi Dench plays a cuddly Irish mum, trying to track down the baby taken from her 50 years prior by the big bad nuns while in the company of a know-it-all journalist (Steve Coogan) and both find the whereabouts of the lost child – and life’s meaning - in Washington D.C. As a log line that’s all true, but fortunately that synopsis only takes you to the film’s 40-minute mark.
After that intro, it would be most unreasonable of me to provide additional information and reveal spoilers in a review. But I can say, the Philomena trailer is deliberately misleading and unless you’ve read Martin Sixsmith’s book about the true story of Philomena Lee, your preconceptions are wrong (as mine were). There are still some substantial surprises left in this true story and they each contribute to the film’s significant emotional impact even as they remain consistent with (though different from) the outcomes the trailer promises.
Stephen Frears who learned his craft in English television and made his international name with Channel 4 film My Beautiful Laundrette (though his 1984 film The Hit remains a personal favourite) has never been a flashy director. Even with a spectacular range of Irish, English and Washington locales on offer, Frears mostly opts for the precision of tight, well-chosen shots and strong performances in a reliable televisual style. It’s a technique that feels so familiar its artistry is often overlooked.
Despite some overly contrived moments in the script, the actors are superb. With her love of romance novels and dotty surprise at getting a free chocolate on a hotel pillow, Philomena Lee is not as sophisticated as Judi Dench’s usual astute matriarchs. However, with her ability to command any scene, Dench can elevate the most troubled or troubling of material as she claims the camera as her intimate companion. She may not have all the smarts, but Dench ensures Philomena Lee has all the dignity.
Not being an Alan Partridge fan, I don’t warm to Steve Coogan’s cynical persona, though I’ve occasionally admired his casting in What Maisie Knew and 24 Hour Party People. As co-writer and co-producer of Philomena, and in claiming the character of former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, Coogan demonstrates a strong awareness of his established screen persona and exhibits a willingness to find material to expand and deepen that persona.
Philomena goes for some easy gags, but never forgets the fact that it has a powerful drama at its centre. Predictably, the film gives the Catholic Church a slamming for 'past" sins, but Philomena Lee also confounds expectations with her strong adherence to her faith. While the film has a sentimental gloss that caters to – in the words of Sixsmith 'weak-minded, vulnerable ignorant people" it also builds into a striking and surprising contemplation on the dilemma of religious belief (or non-belief).
Thursday 18 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy-Clark, Mare Winningham