Judi Dench starring in a film opposite Steve Coogan? I know! Who’d have thought it? It’s an interesting pairing which works, Coogan almost acting as Dench’s straight man for the purpose of the movie. The character of Philomena is often unintentionally funny, but even with this it’s Dench that gets to deliver most of the humour.
The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, who has been carrying the secret of having a son taken away from her by the nuns she turned to as an unmarried mother. When the secret is revealed, her daughter approaches Martin Sixsmith, journalist turned government adviser sacked in a political hoo-ha, to help. He is desperate to avoid having to write a human interest story, but keen to get back to work. Sixsmith reluctantly agrees to help Philomena unravel all the lies to try to find her son and becomes less able to resist becoming personally involved as the story evolves.
It’s no wonder that Dench, the screenplay and the movie are featuring during awards season. This film is emotional without being mawkish and touching without being sentimental, which is a difficult task with the subject matter in hand. In saying this, the film really does tug at the heartstrings, particularly as Judi Dench can portray each fragment of feeling with great flare, from sadness, warmth and resolve to everything in between. Through Dench, Philomena is funny, direct and dignified, and the plot allows the anger we feel when the extent of Philomena’s circumstances become clear to be delivered by Coogan as Sixsmith. Dench and Coogan form a great partnership, both in terms of the acting and also in the way the characters are written to counter each other in each twist of the plot.
Movies often hold a mirror up to the past and make us wonder how terrible things could have happened. Even in a fictionalised account of Philomena Lee’s life, we hear the word ‘forgiveness’ and reflect on what this means. This is perhaps the most emotional part of the film. It makes us feel for all the women still searching for the children that were taken from them and wonder if we could forgive.