Philomena review: “Judi Dench should be in line for an Oscar nomination”

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench star in an amazing true story punctuated by great swings of emotion, says Stella Papamichael

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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan make a winning double-act in the inspiring true story Philomena, released in cinemas this Friday.

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Coogan plays former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith whose 2009 investigative book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee forms the basis of the film. Given the comedian’s recent travails with the British media, the casting may seem a tad ironic and the story is so strange, you may be tempted to think that Sixsmith made it up. Journalists, eh?

At the point of entry Sixsmith is being hung out to dry by Downing Street after serving as an adviser to Tony Blair. He’s become the butt of jokes at fashionable cocktail parties and yet he still turns his nose up at the idea of telling Philomena’s story – he doesn’t do “human interest stories”, he says. Politics is his thing and presumably, that’s the antithesis of interesting…

However, it isn’t the prospect of bumper book sales (and a movie deal) that finally convinces Sixsmith to take the job but Philomena’s sheer bloody optimism. Judi Dench should be in line for an Oscar nomination, pulling off a stunning balancing act as the sweetest little Irishwoman you ever saw completely unworldly yet heroically philosophical about the tragedy that befell her five decades previously:

Philomena fell pregnant as a teenager and was whisked away to a Catholic convent where her little boy was sold to an American couple with nary a word of consent.

Despite the cruel injustice, Philomena remains a woman of faith and it gets under Sixsmith’s skin. He is bent on exposing the wrongdoings of the Catholic Church, but Philomena only wants to find her son and that clash of ideals adds to the friction in the car when they jet off to the States for what looks like being a knockabout road movie.

It isn’t quite that straightforward – there are more than a few left turns in the plot. But throughout, Coogan and Dench are often talking at cross-purposes and that throws up plenty of wickedly funny moments. From a hilarious misunderstanding director Stephen Frears then smoothly switches gears to have them reflect on something deeply upsetting.

Frears is less interested in filling the big screen canvas and that’s a shame, if only because it may have helped emphasise Philomena’s awe at being thrust into the big wide world after leading such a sheltered life. Then again, she is the type of woman unimpressed by grandness; she lands in Washington DC and prefers to watch Big Momma’s House at the hotel rather than visit the towering Lincoln Memorial.

You might share Martin’s frustration with Philomena, except that her joy at watching Martin Lawrence bumbling about in female fat suit is endearingly childlike. Again, there’s a dichotomy in the performance; of age and outlook. Dench’s performance is so richly textured you can forgive the director’s lack of technical prowess.

And if some of the class-clash comedy is a bit obvious, Dench makes up for it with some shockingly funny one-liners, delivered very matter-of-factly – “I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin.” Of course, these scenes wouldn’t be as hilarious without Coogan underlining the absurdity with raised eyebrows. It’s an amazing true story punctuated by great swings of emotion, so keep the tissues handy – there’s plenty to make your eyes water.

Philomena is in UK cinemas on Friday 1 October


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