Philomena

Stephen Frears is hardly the most boundary pushing director currently at work. He occupies the same ‘pleasant’ space as Ron Howard does on the other side of the Atlantic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there are some decent films in Frears’ filmography. But one does not go into a Stephen Frears movie expecting much, especially when his recent output has been flakier than a ’99 with eczema. So Philomena will probably take you a little by surprise. Artistically, it doesn’t represent much of a development, but the presence of Steve Coogan as actor and writer brings an edge to this dark (though comic) tale of living with guilt.

Judi Dench, she of national treasure status, plays Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish lady whose son was taken from her by nuns, when she was just a teenager, and sold to rich Americans. With the help of disgraced spin doctor Martin Sixsmith, Philomena journeys to America to try and reconnect with her lost son. It’s a true story and one suspects that’s the only thing that keeps the tale from descending into full-on schmaltz. But Dench and Coogan are both excellent and share a surprisingly affecting onscreen chemistry: their road trip across America is an absolutely charming exhibition of ‘middle-aged’ filmmaking, but when the acting, and directing, need to sink some serious claws in, they know exactly how. Philomena’s confrontation with the nuns who stole her son is beautifully acted and very touching.

With Frears lightness of tone, some of the potential criticisms of the Catholic church are watered down. After all, this is a film about faith, rather than about evil. Philomena is, first and foremost, a believer, despite everything that she’s been through. Sixsmith is an atheist cynic, but the film leaves little doubt about who has lived the more fulfilling life. On occasion it veers into slightly preachy territory, but redeems itself through a sense of wit and humanity that run from start to finish. If ever there were a ‘solid’ piece of storytelling in modern cinema, Philomena is exactly that and Frears ought to be congratulated for putting together his finest film to date.

Touching, well acted and evenly scripted, Philomena is a film that can be enjoyed by almost anyone, of any age. Deserves to be seen.

philposter
4.5
Title: Philomena
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley
Certificate: 12a (with a few fecks)
Running Time: A neat couple of hours

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