Sunday, 22 December 2013
FILM REVIEW: PHILOMENA
In a year of highly successful onscreen couplings -- Delpy and Hawke (Before Midnight), Cotillard and Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), Douglas and Damon (Behind The Candelabra) -- the pairing of Judi Dench, the grand dame of British stage and screen, and comedian Steve Coogan, is neither the oddest nor the most perfect. But in director Stephen Frears' Philomena, it's a winning combination all the same.
Dench plays Philomena Lee, a devout Irish Catholic who, having been forced by her Church to give up her "sinfully" conceived son for adoption 50 years ago, has forgiven the nuns' trespass against her but has never forgotten her little boy. When Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a journalist in search of a new project, hears of Philomena's plight to be reunited with her son, he begrudgingly takes up the human interest story -- sweet, elderly woman versus evil nuns -- before he soon realises that there is a far more serious and cruel narrative being unearthed.
Based on actual events, and adapted (by Coogan and Jeff Pope) from Sixsmith's own book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film traverses familiar territory and yet manages to spring the occasional surprise. The first being its humour; perhaps not as surprising given Coogan's involvement but laughs are not what you expect in a film about maternal anguish and the sins of the Church.
Naturally, a lot of that humour stems from the odd couple pairing of the little old woman of faith and the cynical, world weary journalist, particularly when their search for Philomena's son leads them to the United States -- all the way to the White House, in fact -- and a road trip of-sorts. But just as Philomena proves to be more canny than her homely, romance novel-loving persona would suggest, Martin is revealed to be far more sensitive to and protective of his travelling companion.
But what you also don't expect in the film is Philomena's defense of the Church and more specifically, the former Mother Superior of the Irish-based Order who caused her so much grief. While Sixsmith rages at the injustices on her behalf (Coogan delivering a blisteringly funny line about what Jesus would do), Philomena accepts that the nuns were doing what they believed to be right, for both the child and in the eyes of God. Although her faith is tested, she barely wavers.
The real Philomena Lee recently wrote a letter to an American film critic who accused the film of anti-Catholicism, wherein she praised the film's depiction of her story whilst reaffirming her devotion to her faith. Frears and Coogan's film eviscerates the Church's treatment of unwed mothers -- who, after being forcefully separated from their children were expected to work off their sin -- whilst simultaneously acknowledging the strength of spirit of Philomena; so often the film's only true Christian, even when surrounded by a convent full of nuns.
Dench (even though her Irish accent falters) can do this kind of role in her sleep. Still, she imbues Philomena Lee with both a requisite softness and steely grit, one developed over 50 years spent agonising over the loss of her child but never once regretting his existence. Coogan is good, too, providing Sexsmith with a dry wit but never making him a caricature. The pair play off each other wonderfully in a dramedy which celebrates devotion: a mother's to her son and a journalist's to the truth.