At last, a film for us wrinkle-toes that doesn’t involve Judi Dench going to India. Rather PHILOMENA involves Judi Dench going to Ireland. Subtle difference from THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL is that this is based on a true story. It’s about a mamma separated from her babba in the 1950s who just wants to know that he’s all right, you know, not sleepin’ in the street... or obese. By chance, her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) chances across an ex-journalist and former spin doctor, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who never actually said on the day of Princess Margaret’s death, ‘it’s a good day to bury bad news.’ The screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, adapting Sixsmith’s book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’ makes that absolutely clear. She encourages Martin to hear Philomena’s story and after initial scepticism – read, ‘I haven’t got anything better to do’ – decides to follow up.
So Philomena (Dench) meets Martin at a Harvester restaurant. She enjoys the salad, especially the croutons, which she calls ‘bits of toast’. She persuades Martin to visit the Roscrea convent in County Tipperary, where Philomena worked and from which her young Anthony was taken, to get answers.
Having persuaded an editor from The Guardian to publish his piece, Martin flies – he won’t share the Vauxhall Cavalier – to Tipperary and picks up Philomena and her daughter in a rented BMW. (‘That’s German, isn’t it?’) But all they get from Sister Claire is tea and cake. Martin is convinced that an older nun may know something but the nun’s quarters is out of bounds, especially from some snooping journalist, I don’t care if its flaming BBC, ITN or Sky.
A chance discussion in the pub gives Martin what journalists call a lead and at this point I shall call a halt on telling the story. Let’s just say there are some very unexpected twists and turns that may involve the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and one of the stars of ST. ELMO’S FIRE, which as I had to inform my ward is nothing to do with SESAME STREET.
The director is Stephen Frears who blows hot and cold. His Hollywood work feels stilted and wrong – give him an Oscar winning actor (Dustin Hoffman in HERO) or a major star (Julia Roberts in MARY REILLY) and he ensures that the resultant film does not play to the masses. Give him material with modest expectations and he surprises you. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE and THE QUEEN were both surprise hits and PHILOMENA is set to be another.
I’m not a great fan of Coogan in his expansive Paul Raymond-Alan Partridge mode, but he is awfully good at playing the wounded dog, albeit one who puts a traffic-cone on a statue. (‘I did that.’) The bravest thing about PHILOMENA is that it portrays a living writer in a very unsympathetic way. Martin is impatient, a bit of a snob, claims the moral high ground at other’s expense and is dismissive of God; yet, he learns the capacity to forgive. (‘I couldn’t do it.’) Dench is a good foil. She has the Irish accent down pat, though I’m not travelled enough to say whether ‘tis the right one, as well as a far-away look.
You sense that events have been compressed and simplified; you’d never guess from the movie that the real Philomena Lee has grandchildren. Does she find her Anthony Lee? That would be telling. The film presents prejudice in two contexts but does not really give it a thorough examination. Does that matter? Not a bit of it. The film is an emotional rollercoaster. You cry in the middle, think it’s peaked too early, but then become overwhelmed right at the end. Bring two hankies.
Reviewed at Odeon Greenwich, London, Sunday 20 October 2013, 10:30am preview screening