Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

by Ruth Thomson

In 2001 former BBC journalist and Blairite spin doctor Martin Sixsmith was formally ‘resigned’ from his job at the Department for Transport over a scandal involving the media coverage around 9/11. In the years following he turned to writing novels and books on his specialist subject, Russian history. Enter the unlikely figure of Philomena Lee – an elderly Irish lady desperate to find the child who’d been taken from her 50 years earlier by nuns quick to chastise her for her sexual sin. A career swerve for Sixsmith followed as he took on this ‘human interest’ story and in 2009 published The Lost Child of Philomena Lee chronicling their endeavours at finding the boy, Anthony.

In Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adaptation for screen (directed by Stephen Frears), Coogan himself plays the world weary Sixsmith and Dame Judi Dench is the warm hearted Philomena, a woman unreservedly delighted by hotel bathrobes, breakfast buffets, and romantic novels. They’re unlikely companions but their relationship evolves as their quest progresses and Martin still wallowing in self-pity over his public humiliation finds he has much to learn from Philomena who, as Frears says of the real life one, ‘wears her tragedy lightly’.

At the heart of the story is the Catholic Church and the not so holy trinity of sex, shame and penance – three things that have dominated Philomena’s life completely, but are angrily rejected by Martin.  The order of events are slightly altered for the film and some artistic license is taken in portraying the two leads – certain qualities are played up to exaggerate the difference in their social status – as the real Philomena said (enjoying her moment on the red carpet at Leiciester Square aged 80) she’s not quite such a ‘dafty’ in real life.

Dench as always is superb – she brings Philomena to the screen with a mix of warmth, strength and humour, whilst Coogan is convincing as the harsher edged hack – though he does himself admit that the performance is ‘50% Martin, 30% himself, and 20% other bits and pieces’. I guess his inability to fully inhabit a character 100% is either a blessing or a curse depending on whether or not you’re a fan. Philomena is an incredibly moving watch, with a powerful message of forgiveness at its core, but for me despite loving a lot of his work, Coogan’s presence (along with a pretty cheesy score by Alexandre Desplat) gives it a slightly made for TV feel. But it’s testament to a remarkable woman who hopes that by bringing it to the big screen she may help others who suffered the same injustice at the hands of the church.

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