4 November 2013


As buddy movie pairings go, you could do a lot worse than Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. They're matched together in Philomena, a film that Coogan has co-written and produced, in addition to taking one of the lead roles, as something of a departure from his more comedic fare. As expected, Dench more than holds her own and steals at least some of the show back from her co-star.

She stars here as former nun Philomena Lee, while Coogan plays shamed journalist-cum-spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith, on whose account of the true story this film is based. Philomena has kept a harrowing secret- that she was forced to give up her son for adoption by her convent sisters- for exactly half a century, on the day that she finally feels compelled to confide in her younger daughter. Meanwhile, Martin finds himself unemployed and at a loose end, when the daughter recruits him to take Philomena on a journey to track down her long lost child.

The real joy of Philomena is in the dynamic that is built up between these two characters, and the chemistry between Dench and Coogan. Even in telling a story which is very moving, the film remains in high spirits. It revels in some of the same bickering that made Coogan's The Trip so enjoyable, but it's also decidedly less nasty. But in the course of making it an intimate road trip movie, director Stephen Frears has also carried over something else from Michael Winterbottom's film/series- the sense that it's really a TV movie, projected considerably larger.

To say that Frears' directorial style is more televisual than cinematic is not a complaint that originated with me, and nor do I think that it necessarily hurts the film for it to feel a little like a TV movie- by many accounts, television is consistently outclassing today's cinema. It's just curious that this is the first time I've really noticed it, (even if his Tamara Drewe never felt more at home than on BBC Two at the weekend) and in reading through Frears' IMDB page, it's not through any longstanding collaboration with an editor or director of photography that his films look so consistently uncinematic.

It does, however, mean that this may be one of those films that's best enjoyed on TV, rather than in a cinema. I can't say whether it was the pacing of the scenes, or the pedestrian shots that put me more in mind of a small-screen pursuit, but that's just how it felt. There's little doubt that the lead performances will be mentioned for awards contention in the coming months, because they both deserve it. Coogan puts considerable distance between his performance here and his recent return as Alan Partridge (and I say that having devoured all things North Norfolk-y for the first time over the last few months), and Dench, incredibly, is still able to surprise us.

Her Philomena is as down-to-Earth and sharp as some of her most beloved characters, (I thought of her M, last seen in Skyfall, more than once) and yet there's a different kind of dignity to her performance, skewed by the transferred institutional guilt that she's carried around all these years. Dench really carries that with her, whether wringing her hands over the decisions she's made, or generally irritating the more cynical Martin with her sincere nice-ness.

In this regard, the film's also quite even-handed- those who want to get mad at the Catholic church for how they treated Philomena and other young, unwed mothers inevitably get to see Martin kick off in righteous anger, but it's not a film that altogether comes out and drubs faith or organised religion either. It's in this regard that the leads serve best, as counterpoints to one another, and the affection between them underlies their more heated debates.

Philomena is fairly workmanlike from a cinematic point-of-view, but it tugs at the heartstrings and tickles the funny bone in equal measure, without ever cloying for either tears or laughter. The script's even-handed, two-handed approach manages to find as much development for Martin as for the title character, and through terrific performances and a knack for potentially clumsy exposition, finds nuance and humour in what could have, in lesser hands, been a pot-shot at an emotional open goal.

Philomena is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Philomena, why not share your comments below? Please don't point out any Accidental Partridge lines in my review- I have his voice stuck in my head all the time these days...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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