Director: Steven Frears
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Released: 1st November 2013 (UK)
Based on a true story is something used often to sell a movie and perhaps it’s often overlooked. For me, knowing that someone has lived through the events unfolding on the screen adds an extra emotional dimension to the experience. This has probably never been the case so much as in Philomena.
Having lost his job as political spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) takes on a ‘human-interest’ story in the shape of the elderly Philomena Lee and the secret that she has kept hidden for 50 years. After having her son taken from her and adopted when she was a young girl living in a convent, Philomena is determined to find out what has happened to her son and embarks on a journey that sees them travel around the world looking for answers.
Coogan has acted as both writer and producer for Philomena and his subtle script is backed up by a solid performance from the man himself. Hard done by and slightly spoilt, as his relationship with Philomena develops so does the one he shares with the audience. Shifting from a man looking to find another big break to one desperate to help, Coogan perhaps has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination, but if not the BAFTA’s will definitely be within reach for Coogans most impressive performance to date in a serious role.
What can be said for Dench? There are moments when you forget that she is 78 and though she plays a woman slightly younger (around 65) she is effortless in her role as title character, Philomena Lee. She delivers an expert performance that creates such emotion, it’s a stunning performance mixing humour and humility in a perfectly balanced dose.
While the story it based on is true, it’s perhaps a little more extreme than you would expect and while it may be hard to relate directly to Philomena’s tale of love and loss, the family aspect is one that will surely touch a lot of people. While it is emotional, it’s never overbearing and is broken up brilliantly by the chemistry between the two unlikely partners.
A string of interesting side characters allow the story to progress and under the direction of Steven Frears (The Queen), the story doesn’t linger needlessly. Instead it is perfectly paced, covering all areas and answering the viewers questions in due course.
The only areas of improvement in my eyes are the marketing campaign that Philomena has used, aimed at a more mature audience, they have almost alienated any younger crowd from considering watching it, myself included, but having seen it, it’s clear it’s watchable by most age groups and many of whom will be able to engage with the emotional story. It’s almost as if Philomena has purposefully segregated itself into a category that means the audience will be far less diverse. The lack of information on Coogan’s character’s downfall from being a political spin doctor working in Downing Street to an everyday journalist is one that offered an interesting side-line but is only very briefly explored, we know the basics but it just lacked key components to be able to piece together the whole story.
Philomena is equally humourous as it is heartbreaking. Strong performances reinforce the senstitive subject and create one of the best British films in recent years and definitely one that will surely see Dench as a contender for the Best Actress prize at both the Academy Awards and the BAFTA’s. Overall a thouroughly enjoyable experience and one that performs brilliantly on many levels.
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