A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
The trailer for Philomena is rather misleading, on the face of it it would seem as if it would be easy to predict every beat of the story. From the start of Philomena’s search, to her finding her estranged son, it is a story not unfamiliar to us. However, as with real-life, things aren’t so simple. This turns out to be the films strongest asset. Philomena is filled with twists and turns that feel both natural and unique, an advantage clearly born out of this being a real-life story. The film attains a level of authenticity that is rarely seen in works of fiction, something that really makes it stand out from the crowd.
As much as Philomena at times shows a degree of disdain for human interest stories, it certainly owes a lot to this mode of story telling. An integral part of the human interest story is the set-up, which is often used to establish a sense of injustice. In Philomena we meet a young Philomena, who after falling pregnant at a young age and giving birth in a convent, is kept in veritable slavery so as to repay the sisters that cared for her. Slowly but surely her one pleasure in life, her son, is taken away from her. This sequence is truly heart-rending, in part thanks to the performance of Sophie Kennedy Clark. It may be emotionally manipulative, but there is no denying it works. There is no doubt that the audience is invested from here on in.
The majority of the rest of the film concerns the partnership between Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and a now older Philomena (Judi Dench). The two really work as pairing, creating both a humorous and touching dynamic in the film. Judi Dench predictably puts in a brilliant performance, likely to remind many of their own elderly relatives. Her seeming enthusiasm for everything, her off tangent rambling, and her strange concerns are all well observed and expertly played. Coogan is clearly outclassed here. Playing the role of the cynical Sixsmith, it is clear that he doesn’t have a massive dramatic range. His performance being reminiscent of his role in The Trip, where he played himself. It may be harsh to take Coogan up on his dramatic abilities when his talents clearly lie in comedy, especially as the few dramatic scenes his character has he plays adequately. However, he and his character are at their best when they are playing off Dench and finding the humour in her performance.
Indeed Coogan (alongside Jeff Pope) wrote Philomena, and as one would expect from one of his projects, it is filled with wry humour. From the opening line to the very last, there is near a laugh in every scene. One of the best running gags involves Philomena dictating near the whole plot of a book she has read to Martin. The first instance of this we hear Philomena’s recitation in full. The scene runs for a good while, a lot longer than many comedies would allow their jokes to run for (for fear of boring the audience). It is admirable how committed the film stays to this scene and it pays-off brilliantly. Even it’s darkest of moments Philomena manages to find levity in its humour.
In the end, the human interest story must have a conclusion. As Sixsmith’s editor prompts him many times in the films running, the story must either end happily or sadly. Though Philomena sticks to Hollywood style storytelling, it never surrenders to predictable plotting. The stories roots in reality help to prevent this. As a result, it is never clear whether the story will have a happy or sad ending (and even then it’s not particularly clear). The fact that this tension lingers throughout, helps keep the audience invested to the end. Something that is lacking in many less organic productions. For all of the great performances and brilliant humour, this is the real reason for the success of the film.
In many ways Philomena may bring back memories of The Kings Speech. Both draw from humour and Hollywood storytelling to present real-life stories, and both are British productions with their sights on the Oscars. Whether Philomena will have as much success at the Oscar’s is in doubt. But it is still a film that deserves to be recognised at least in one of the categories that it will no doubt be nominated for. Maybe it’s time for Dench’s second Oscar.