After losing his job as a spin doctor, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) decides to return to journalism. His subject is Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irishwoman who, as a teenager, had a child that she gave up. Together, they set out to find him.
The first half of Stephen Frears’ Philomena concerns the true story of 70-something Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who confides in her daughter that in her teens she had a baby boy out of wedlock. In flashback we see Lee, disowned by her family, being sent to a Magdalene home in County Tipperary, where she endures forced labour in the laundry, seeing her child for just an hour a day. One morning the child is picked up by a couple in an expensive car, and Philomena is told to put him out of her mind. Which she tries to, until the occasion of his 50th birthday, when Philomena can contain her secret no more. Is he still alive? An alcoholic? Lost or homeless? Every mother’s worst fears flash through her mind.
Already we have enough material for a harrowing Mike Leigh/Ken Loach social-realist drama; instead, writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope make the rather brilliant decision to filter Philomena’s tale through a man who, at first, isn’t really interested in it at all. And the film keeps up this distance throughout; though they come to a mutual understanding, Martin’s (Coogan) life is not changed by Philomena, and neither is hers by him. It is this distance that makes the film so special, bridging contrary worlds like a fusion of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and In The Loop.
Is it funny? Emphatically yes, not simply in Coogan’s understated quips (“I’ve never been to a Harvester before,” he deadpans when meeting Philomena at her favourite restaurant) but also in Dame Judi’s dotty delivery (her fondness for Mills & Boon romance novels leads to the film’s bravura comic sequence). But is it profound?
Yes to that too. Though it will be remembered as a feelgood mismatched-buddy movie, Frears’ film contains a rich seam of anger that starts with Magdalene homes and finally takes us across the Atlantic to one of the great shames of Ronald Reagan’s administration. That it can do so and leave us smiling is why Philomena will be the dark horse of the awards season.
Nominations are assured for Frears and Dame Judi, but most importantly the film is vindication of the underrated Steve Coogan, not only for his refined performance, a masterclass in restraint, but also for his effortless, subtle script, perhaps the most subversive British blend of social comment and comedy since the heyday of Ealing Studios.
A terrific, sophisticated comedy that tackles serious issues with a lightness of touch and a spirit of steel, Philomena is the British film to beat come BAFTA time.