On one hand, Philomena is one of the most unlikely buddy comedies you’re likely to see, but to label it so might seem a tad too flippant. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) does pit the dry British humour of Steve Coogan with a doddery, against-type Judi Dench, to great and unexpected comedic effect. But more importantly, the film is a harrowing true story about how a single mother spent 50 years shamefully and silently mourning over her son who was wrongfully taken from her.
We first meet Philomena when her tragic past finally forces her to verbalise her most shameful of secrets. She had a son. He’d be 50 now. Is he even alive? Philomena’s plight is every mother’s worst nightmare and while the knowledge of whether he lives or not panics her, it’s the prospect of whether or not he even felt loved by her that truly haunts her.
The smart and thoroughly engaging script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope is inspired by journalist and former political advisor Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Coogan casts himself as the real life Sixsmith in the wake of his fall from the Blair government’s grace. As the man Philomena hires to help track down her estranged son, Coogan delivers a splendid mixture of wry quips and sensitive dramatic control. Dench, who seems incapable of delivering anything other than brilliance, plays the 70-something Philomena, whose no-nonsense Irish Catholic sensibilities and obsession with romance novels bounces wonderfully off of Coogan’s snide world outlook.
The film brings to light the awful truth behind a period of time in which the Irish Catholic Church profited from forcing pregnant teenagers to give up their children and sell them to childless American couples. As can be expected, the Catholic Church is appropriately demonised and vilified by Sixsmith, while Philomena seeks something greater than vengeance; reconciliation and closure. The controversy of such atrocities begs to question how one might forgive such a painful and personal experience.
Though against some pretty stiff competition this Awards season, Philomena is a small British film that blends humour, comedy and social commentary with precision and delicacy and deserves to be mentioned amongst the very best of 2013.