If you were seeking a guaranteed recipe for box-office success, casting Judi Dench as a sweet little old Irish lady trying to track down the son she was forced into giving up for adoption decades earlier sounds like the winning ingredient. Add in Steve Coogan as an acerbic British journalist enlisted in her search, helping to steer the story away from the swamp of sentiment, and the fact that it’s based on a true story, and you have Stephen Frears’ triumphant, warm-hearted crowd-pleaser “Philomena”. The Weinstein Company will undoubtedly feel they have a potential hit on their hands with the emotive, funny “Philomena”, and Coogan, Frears and, in particular, Dench all look destined for oodles of awards-season love.
“Philomena” begins with Coogan on a downslide, and Dench recalling the upsetting events that led to the loss of her child when she found herself one of Ireland’s “fallen women”, a pregnant teen abandoned to the nuns and their slave-like laundries. He’s Martin Sixsmith, an advisor to Tony Blair’s Labour government who’s expunged in humiliating fashion from his post (the film is based on Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee”). Chance encounters with Philomena’s adult daughter (Anna Maxwell-Martin) and the editor of a mid-market tabloid looking for “human-interest stories” (Michelle Fairley) lead the world-weary Sixsmith back into his old profession when, on the eve of her long-lost son’s 50th birthday, Philomena agrees to sell her story if Sixsmith can help her find Anthony. “I just want to know if he’s ever thought of me,” she says.
Together, they travel to Roscrea, the Irish convent where Philomena paid the penance of her shame but where the current order claims to have lost all records in a fire (while, Sixsmith wryly notes, conveniently managing to preserve the document Philomena signed giving up all claim to Anthony). Eventually, thanks to wily prying from Sixsmith, the trail leads them to America where, without revealing too much, one astonishing surprise after another lies in wait.
Dench and Coogan are both joys to watch in their roles, and the script, co-written by Coogan with Jeff Pope, is fine-tuned with cleverness, wit, and robust characterisation. The story, and Dench, could have easily lapsed into a treacly pit, and while the “cute Irish lady” card is definitely played, it’s presented in a compellingly joyous fashion so that it never grates. That’s where Coogan’s role in the narrative is also crucial. In the UK, the actor’s antipathy towards the media is well known – he and Hugh Grant were the two highest-profile campaigners in favour of new restrictions on press intrusion – so it’s amusing watching him play someone trying to air dirty laundry for the middle-market tabloid he despises the most (the Daily Mail, although it’s not mentioned).
Coogan’s face becomes a priceless reservoir of muted reaction as he listens to Philomena recount the entire plot of her latest romance novel, or marvel at the lavish breakfast buffet at their Washington DC hotel. Equally, the pair’s conversations about religion, faith, loss, and the “evils” of the Catholic Church add a welcome dose of piquancy. As Philomena and Sixsmith share one delightful exchange after another, the script keeps the moral intelligence to the fore in discussing the issues behind the scandal of Ireland’s “shamed” mothers, pulling off that delicately fine balance between humour and tragedy with aplomb.
While she can be terribly funny, Dench is also supremely moving in her role. There’s a scene early on where Sixsmith and Philomena first visit the Roscrea convent to see what news they can find, and the jovial mother superior tells them about the fire that destroyed the records. In a moment of staggering human intimacy, the actress looks down at her lap like she might just fold up and perish right there from the heartbreak. Dench takes your breath away, and so does “Philomena”.