Philomena is something yearned for and lusted after by film-makers and journalists alike – a really good story. It’s a powerful and heartfelt drama, based on a real case, with a sledgehammer emotional punch and a stellar performance from Judi Dench, along with an intelligently judged supporting contribution from Steve Coogan. Yet the film’s apparent simplicity and force come to us flavoured with subtle nuances and subtexts, left there by the people who brought this story to the public.
At its centre is a tough-minded, elderly Irish woman, Philomena Lee (Dench), and her battle to find out what happened to the baby boy taken away from her in the 1950s. As a teenage unmarried mother, she had been forced to put up her child for adoption, while working in one of the Irish Republic’s penitential Magdalene laundries, which survived until the 1980s. These cottage industries of shame and self-hate were run by nuns and priests who had a nasty secret of their own: they discreetly accepted substantial sums of money from America’s childless Catholic couples. It was a baby-farm business model that ran on cruelty and hypocrisy. Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters was a memorably fierce denunciation.
But the film is also about a former media apparatchik’s personal need for a redemptive act of goodness after being mired in the shabby and inglorious world of political spin. And at a level below that, the film could also be about a comedian and actor working through his own strong feelings about what he feels to be two malign institutions: the Church and Fleet Street.
Coogan is the producer and co-writer of Philomena, and he plays Martin Sixsmith, the former BBC correspondent turned New Labour political adviser who, in 2002, was ousted from his job in an unedifying row over smear allegations and a leaked email. (The film is adapted from Sixsmith’s own book.) Unhappily returning to work as a freelance journalist, he chances across the extraordinary story of Philomena, played by Dench with such effortless poise, serio-comic charm and heart-tugging potency. Sixsmith takes Philomena to America on a mission to track down her lost son.
Such a savvy operator as Sixsmith must surely have been aware of the case of Labour frontbencher Clare Short, who in 1996 was sensationally reunited with the son she had given away 31 years earlier: a well-publicised good news story for New Labour in opposition. That is not mentioned here. This movie puts party politics to one side to concentrate on what Coogan’s Sixsmith is shown initially deriding as a "human interest" story: mid-market newspaper slush. Yet he takes it on and they make the oddest of couples. Martin is the high flyer who has risen in the amoral worlds of politics and the media. Philomena is the working-class woman who holds on to one clear moral fact: what the church did to her was wrong, but she doesn’t want revenge, only the truth.
The story of Philomena’s teenage self – she is played as a young woman by Sophie Kennedy Clark – is gruelling. We are used to Dickensian images of destitute old married couples in the 19th century being separated for ever at the doors of the English workhouses: for men and for women. There’s similar agony and lump-in-the-throat desolation in seeing the teenage mums having their babies taken away from them. And all of it sanctified in the name of Mary Magdalene, who received from Christ a compassion that is nowhere visible now.
What Sixsmith and Philomena discover in the US is gripping. Dench shows how Philomena is scared, but has reserves of humour and courage that Sixsmith, for all his sophistication, can’t match. There is a touch of Crocodile Dundee in Philomena’s wide-eyed presence in the big city, of course, but it is great stuff from Dench.
Coogan’s performance is more opaque. To some extent, his Sixsmith can never overtly seek redemption, since he never concedes he did anything wrong. But quite aside from this consideration, Coogan keeps everything pretty low key, even his anger, though there is one Partridgean moment as he savours the fruited bread the nuns give him for tea. Coogan is an excellent actor, but rarely has the chance to show it. With great restraint, he doesn’t really give himself the opportunity here, leaving the dramatic and moral focus with Dench. Director Stephen Frears guides this arrangement with a sure hand.
Coogan has spoken publicly of his atheism and Catholic background. But what is really interesting is how his character adopts, and even embraces, the tactics of popular journalism. In pursuit of an interview, his Sixsmith literally shoves his foot in the door. But this kind of "human interest" journalism does real good: it gets at the truth and gives people closure, justifications of which the public has grown suspicious. Could it be that Coogan, the great accuser and challenger of the press, is conducting a creative thought-experiment? Turning the journalists into the good guys? At any rate, the result is a moving and exhilarating film, and the strange chemistry between Dench and Coogan ferments into a 120-degree proof emotional drama.
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