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Venice 2013: Philomena

Posted on Sunday September 1, 2013, 12:34 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Venice 2013: Philomena

Philomena is the result of an unlikely collusion between Steve Coogan, Stephen Frears and Dame Judi Dench, telling the story of an Irish woman who, in her 70s, breaks the news to her daughter that she had an illegitimate son in her early teens. What happened to the mother – disowned by her family, sent to a Magdalene home, and forced into near-slavery by nuns before being coerced into giving the boy up for adoption – is bad enough, but the woman’s fears for her son are even worse. Is he dead? Homeless? Drunk? This all sounds like a recipe for sure disaster, either a glum misery-fest or the most inappropriate laffer of all time. And yet Philomena is nothing but a resounding, unqualified success: funny, sad, angry and forgiving, a beautifully understated and very un-Hollywood comedy that covers familiar emotional territory in a very unusual way.

The key is a very smart and considerate script by Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope, which is loosely but still quite faithfully adapted from the true story of TV journalist Martin Sixsmith, who lost his job as a government spin doctor and, while unemployed and looking for a subject to write about, stumbled on the true story of Philomena Lee. The match is not immediate: Sixsmith is an urbane, atheist city man who lives in Knightsbridge, Philomena an uncomplicated, God-fearing rural Irishwoman. But despite their differences, they agree to work together on a news article to track down the woman’s son.

So far, so mismatched buddy/road movie, but, although it does follow a somewhat predictable track, Frears’ film does everything it possibly can to beat the system. Neither Martin nor Philomena are immediate charmers: he can be rude and often cutting, she a little disengaged from the world, always seeing the good in everything. Neither really has their head turned by the other. And yet there is a terrific unforced rapport that pushes the story along, leading to great revelations, tears and redemption, all achieved without recourse to strings and misty-eyed close-ups, just plain, nuanced human interaction.

Dame Judi will get the plaudits – a warm reception at the press conference here is always a good omen, as Helen Mirren, Mickey Rourke and Colin Firth will attest – but Coogan is the unsung hero of the piece, the rock-solid straight man who sets up the delightful, subtle gags as Philomena potters, oblivious, past his barbs. Frears deserves a fair share of the credit too, using his own sardonic humour to terrific effect; the pauses and silences say as much as the dialogue, honed to Coogan’s usual high standard. 

Like the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, this is a deeply sad story that somehow leaves a warm, fuzzy feeling, and though there are some loose ends and oddities in the continuity of the story, it never feels fake. In short, Philomena is the homegrown awards bulldozer of the year, a meticulous, intelligent crowdpleaser that epitomises British cinema at its thoughtful, dry and intimate best. It’s either this year’s The Queen or 2013’s The King’s Speech; either way, we’re looking at a win-win situation.

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