Philomena – LFF Film Review

Philomena

Ah, Judi Dench. Does it get any better than seeing her take the lead role in a film? I have a great love for the Dame and was very excited to get to see her take the title role in Philomena. The film is based upon the true story of an Irish Catholic woman’s search for the son she was forced to give up as an unmarried mother. Despite trying to find him for years she has had no success due to lack of co-operation from the nuns who took her child away. On her son’s fiftieth birthday she finally tells her daughter about the missing member of their family and together they approach Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who is looking for a human interest story to gain a foothold back in journalism.

Thanks to the efforts of Sixsmith, largely driven by a need for a success rather than any emotional attachment to the story, Philomena and Martin trace her son from Ireland to America and go on a transatlantic journey in pursuit of the truth. Along the way Martin softens towards Philomena’s plight and they connect over the voyage of discovery despite often coming to clashes due to differing backgrounds and impatience with one another’s religious beliefs. Martin becomes increasingly sympathetic as you see just how distressed he becomes at the way Philomena has been treated and the fact that he ends up taking greater offence even than she does at the crimes of the Church.

Director Stephen Frears has had a mixed bag of films in recent years with the likes of The Queen and Tamara Drewe but with Philomena he is back on top form. Despite a slightly shaky start during which not all the jokes were landing the film gradually warmed up the audience with the laughs coming much more easily as the film went on. Co-writer Steve Coogan was for a change more of the straight man as it was Judi Dench who got the lion’s share of the killer lines. Admittedly sometimes this was as simple as hearing Dench swear, because seeing older characters use curse words is always good for an easy laugh, but often it was more through her excellent portrayal of a woman who can wax lyrical about the salad cart at a Harvester or recall in detail the plot of the romance novel she has been reading. Philomena is a vibrant character and not merely a deperate victim of curcumstance.

Philomena is not an out-and-out comedy however as the story being told is a complicated one involving the forced separation of a mother and child. Some of the discoveries made in America were heartwarming and others heartbreaking. I am not ashamed to admit that this film brought about my first tears of the festival. It must have been the lack of sleep…

Not quite perfect but a funny and emotional film that give Judi Dench’s acting chops a too infrequent showcase. Steve Coogan co-stars in his fourth excellent film of the year showing he is far more than just Alan Partridge. I laughed, I cried, I text my mum and sister to ensure they go and see it.

Philomena screens at the festival on the 16th, 17th and 19th October and is in UK cinemas on 1st November 2013.

BFI London Film Festival 2013