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Philomena

D: Stephen Frears / 98m

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon, Anna Maxwell Martin

In 2004, and finding himself at a bit of a loss as to what to do after losing his job as a Labour government advisor, ex-journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is approached by the daughter of Philomena Lee (Dench) who suggests he writes a story about her.  Fifty years before, Philomena was forced to give up her baby boy, Anthony, by the nuns she was staying with at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea.  She has been trying to find him ever since but the nuns have always said they are unable to provide any information as to his whereabouts.

Intrigued, Sixsmith agrees to pursue the story after he meets Philomena, and they travel to Roscrea to see if they can find out anything further.  Advised by Mother Barbara (McCabe) that the records relating to Philomena were lost in a fire, they later discover that the records were destroyed by the nuns in a bonfire.  They also learn that the nuns were selling the children under their care, and mostly to Americans.

Martin and Philomena follow Anthony’s trail to the US.  Through Martin’s contacts, he discovers that Anthony was adopted by Doc and Marge Hess, and that they renamed him Michael; they also adopted another child, Mary, the daughter of one of Philomena’s friends at the abbey.  Michael grew up to be a lawyer and senior official in both the Reagan and Bush administrations, but sadly, he died in 1995.  Philomena decides she wants to meet some of the people who knew Michael, including his adopted sister, Mary (Winningham).  This leads to revelations about Michael’s life, and his death, that lead Philomena and Martin back to Roscrea.

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With such an emotive subject, the script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, combines drama and humour and outrage in (nearly) equal measure.  The early scenes, showing some of the experiences the young Philomena (Clark) endured at the abbey are quite disturbing, and while we’ve seen a more systematic, and horrifying, appraisal of this type of religious “care” in Peter Mullen’s The Magdalene Sisters, they’re still distressing enough to get across the unfeeling and harsh approach of the nuns to the young women’s “sin of fornication”.  As their attempts to find out what happened to Anthony are blocked by the nuns, the movie deftly sidesteps the wider issue of Church-sanctioned neglect, and focuses on Philomena’s story instead.  It’s a wise move, and allows the movie to progress almost as a mystery, with discoveries made that add to the depth of the nuns’ deception.

Once in the US, the script adds elements of Philomena’s naïveté, at the same time as revealing she knows more about certain subjects than might be expected.  While there’s a certain amount of gentle mockery in these moments – she refers to several people as being “one in a million” – they’re offset by Philomena’s certainty in her own behaviour and outlook.  As played by Dench, Philomena is by turns, sad, angry, resourceful, determined, resigned, grieving, and ultimately, quite heroic.  There are several moments where Dench, in close-up, displays a range of emotions, and the viewer is left in no doubt as to what those emotions are, thanks to Dench’s skill as an actress.  There’s not one false note in her whole performance.

Thankfully, she’s matched by Coogan, whose performance begins more as a comic turn but soon develops into a dramatic one, his character finding his way into the story more and more and becoming as determined to discover the truth as Philomena.  As depicted here, Sixsmith is a bit ill-mannered, very dismissive of religion, and at times, manipulative.  His attitude compliments the more open and receptive nature that Philomena displays, and as a “team” their respective strengths make them both resourceful and disarming.  As they discover more and more about Michael, their reactions compliment each other as well.

Philomena is also buoyed up by confident, often impressive direction courtesy of Stephen Frears.  Frears is one of the most consistently thought-provoking directors working today, and he’s particularly good at taking complex material and making it accessible to audiences.  He’s helped here by the script, and by the wonderful performances, and orchestrates the various developments with great skill, making Philomena a particular pleasure to watch.  In many ways, it’s British filmmaking at its best: thoughtful, intelligent, humorous, well-mounted and inspiring.

Rating: 9/10 – aside from some deviations to the actual course of events, Philomena is a poignant, uplifting tale that can raise a tear as often as a smile; a triumph for all concerned and entirely deserving of the awards it’s won so far.

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