Director: Stephen Frears
Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a shamed journalist who finds himself intrigued by the ‘human interest story’ of Philomena Lee (Dench), an old woman wanting to trace her long lost son. As a teen in 1950s Ireland, Philomena became pregnant out of wedlock and was taken to the Magdalene Sisters to have her child. Signing away the fate of her son, believing this punishment to be atonement for her sins, the infant was taken away and adopted by an American family. Martin and Philomena return to the convent, but their hunt for information is thwarted by the nuns, who refuse to assist them. Following another lead they travel to Washington DC, where they discover more and more about the family who adopted him and exactly what happened in the convent in the 50s.
Based on a true story, the film explores a snapshot of history that the Catholic Church should be keen to forget. The cruelty and brutality of the Magdalene Sisters is abhorrent to watch, as women come to them in need of their help, to be met only with disgust and unkindness. Young girls die in childbirth, pain relief is refused of them and the Sisters declare that the pain they are suffering is “God’s punishment” for their sins. All the more alarming is their continued attempts to punish these girls, who return to them later in life to trace their children, only to be met with claims that their records had been “lost in the great fire”. Even though their practices were shut down by the Church for their barbaric practices of imprisonment and enslavement, these supposed ‘godly’ women continued their mission of punishing those they deemed worthy of penance. By the end of the film, any viewer will loath not just these nuns, but all nuns in general.
The character of Philomena is a fascinating snapshot however. A deeply religious person from another age, in some ways floundering in the modern world, but in others embracing it wholly, she is a person many of us will recognise in our grandparents. Her favourite restaurant is a Harvester, she reads only romance novels and her whole life is moderate, meek and humble. But while we expect her to inhabit that small-minded introspection of Catholics of her age, she shows a remarkable broadness of understanding of the world she lives in; her reaction to discussions about sex and sexuality are real stand-out moments in the film. And though the film itself explores some very serious themes, Philomena is a genuinely funny character, with all the likeability of a sweet, kind old woman. She is drawn with a care and attention that suggests Coogan’s love for such women, and the director, Stephen Frears’, as well. And just as we saw Frears explore the psyche of The Queen herself, so too do we now delve into the depths of a woman whose life has been lived masking her real thoughts, hiding her feelings and drawing now on a whole lifetime of experience and wisdom.
Overall though, Philomena is a tour de force for both Dench and Coogan and I predict the Academy will take notice of at least Dame Judi’s performance. It’s not Frears’ greatest film (The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons are finer films all round), but as a movie clearly aimed toward an older audience and capitalising on the newly identified market of ‘The Grey Pound’, this is the best of the bunch, towering head and shoulders over last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. Welcome back Dame Judi, and I sincerely hope this film leads to more dramatic roles for Coogan, whose transition to Hollywood I more than happily advocate.