On paper Philomena already sounds like a hit in the making. Directed by The Queen’s Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the film follows the real-life story of Philomena Lee who spent years trying to locate her son after he was sold by Irish nuns to a wealthy American family. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock’s Gravity may have been the talk of the Venice Film Festival, but Philomena has emerged as a critical hit too, meeting with rapturous applause and already generating a healthy amount of chatter ahead of next year’s awards season.
The Hollywood Reporter lauds the “incredibly light touch” when handling themes of “the existence of God in a cruel world and the guilt society attaches to personal sexual expression,” before acknowledging the way they are “naturally and unpretentiously interwoven” by Frears.
Best known for his comic creation Alan Partridge, Coogan has branched into serious drama in recent years and his performance in Philomena (which he co-wrote with Jeff Pope) as journalist Martin Sixsmith has been praised by critics.
“Coogan gives one of his finest, most fully realised film performances,” comments Xan Brooks in The Guardian, before commending Dench as “purely wonderful” in a “moving, suprisingly funny” film which he gives four out of five stars.
The Evening Standard also heaps praise on the pair’s performance: “It has, it almost goes without saying, a splendid portrait from Dench. But Coogan equals her with just about his best film performance and Frears orchestrates the proceedings with a beady eye on its possibilities, both as drama and comedy.”
Writing in The Telegraph, Robbie Collins labels the film a “crowd delighter” before observing how, “Coogan and Pope’s script tenderises you with keenly judged comic asides before landing its big, emotional body-blows and just as you are writing off a scene at a breakfast buffet as a bit of light relief, it suddenly becomes one of the film’s most affecting moments.”
However, Hitfix were less than impressed by Dench’s need to “play dumb”, observing that, “the whole film seems rather too amused by Philomena, repeatedly ribbing her as a kind of holy innocent, whose sense of perma-wonder extends even to the complimentary mint on her hotel room pillow.” But Guy Lodge can’t hold back his reverence for Dench’s performance, singling out a “particularly moving, underplayed faceoff with the withered Sister Hildegard” for giving the film “its grace notes (and Dench, I expect, her seventh Oscar nomination).”
Variety calls the film a “smug but effective middlebrow crowd pleaser” that “boasts a sharper set of dentures than most films of its type, shrewdly mining its material for laughs and righteous anger as well as tears.” Justin Chang goes on to predict that “the Weinstein Co. should have no trouble positioning director Stephen Frears’ latest as a sleeper success, certain to rouse audiences not put off by its genteel calculation.”
And finally, Screen Daily is one of many publications to commend Philomena’s ability to switch between humour and pathos: “On the surface an easy fit for audiences who embraced The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it is so much more than that – it’s a gently powerful and absorbing film that will have audiences veering between tears and laughter.”
Philomena is released in UK cinemas on 1 November 2013 – take a look at the trailer below: