Review: Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan excell in a true-life tale that combines drama and comedy to surprisingly winning effect

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Director: Stephen Frears
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley
Running Time: 1 hr 38 mins

Nobody is likely to mistake Stephen Frears’s latest entertainment for a groundbreaking adventure in experimental cinema. That said, it is hard to think of another film that pulls off this particular juggling trick.

Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script tells the story of an Irish woman named Philomena Lee who, accompanied by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, sets out to track down the son taken from her 50 years previously.

The story touches on themes that are depressingly familiar to domestic audiences. As an unmarried mother, Philomena, incarcerated in a convent at Roscrea, was powerless to stop the nuns flogging her child to a wealthy American family. When Sixsmith starts to investigate, he encounters evasion and obfuscation at every turn. Eventually, a pathetic conspiracy is uncovered.

The film-makers hammer home the grubby tale with angry vehemence. Sour notes abound. Playing a woman with a near super-human capacity for forgiveness, Judi Dench deals in levels of sadness that could draw tears from a boulder. Yet the film also manages to be one of the funniest odd-couple comedies in recent decades. That the two elements mesh so seamlessly brings great credit to all involved. Philomena really is something of a mainstream marvel.


Not for the first time, we will briefly note that Coogan is yet again playing a variation on Alan Partridge – much brighter, but just as self-obsessed – before moving on to praise his sense of timing and gift for social nuance. At first, Sixsmith, recently sacked as a Labour media wonk, is unsure about covering a "human-interest story", but, persuaded that it has all the right dynamics for popular appeal, he agrees to meet Philomena in a suburban restaurant. After some digging, he discovers that the child must be in the Unites States, and the ill-matched pair catch a flight for Washington DC. Sometimes the news is good. Often it's bad.

Craftily, the film begins by placing us in Sixsmith’s shoes as he becomes increasingly exasperated with this near-archetypal chattering Irish mother. Whereas he flits blithely through restaurants and airport lounges without heeding a face or noting a name, Philomena has that familiar habit of talking to absolutely everybody.

Each aspect of the trip requires comment: bathrobes in the rooms; chocolates on the sheets; Mexicans in the breakfast room. Dench (whose parents were Irish) manages to draw out the humour without ever turning her character into a fool. "We could watch Big Momma's House," she says, gesturing towards the hotel's entertainment package. "A little black man pretends to be a fat black lady. It sounds hilarious."

Indeed, as the film progresses, the title character, hitherto patronised by Sixsmith, emerges as the wiser of the two. When they encounter evidence that her son might be gay, Sixsmith and a researcher look uneasily at one another behind Philomena’s back. “Oh, I knew that!” she says without any apparent care. “He was such a sensitive boy.” More significantly, her continuing Catholic faith pushes home a worthy point not made sufficiently forcefully during recent clerical scandals: the Church does not serve the people; the Church is the people.

Some may argue that the film – easily Frears's best since The Queen – never engages with the political and legal failings that allowed such outrages to take place. Well, we have recently seen two theatrically released documentaries that asked those questions and there is certainly room for a movie that devotes itself to one woman's story.

It is an odd experience to leave such a film – as Philomena and Martin drive over the horizon – and find yourself wishing for an impossible sequel. A little Englishwoman plays a madly chatty Irishwoman. It sounds hilarious. It is hilarious.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist