Published Thursday, 31 October 2013
Based on the compelling true story of an Irish mother's desperate search for her long lost son, this is a brilliant bittersweet comedy of love and loss.
When we first meet Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) she is tearfully lighting a candle in an English Church to mark her son's birthday; beloved little Anthony whom she has not seen in almost half a century.
Falling pregnant as a teenager in the repressive Ireland of the 1950's, Philomena was sent to the convent of Roscrea to work in the oppressive laundry. When her baby was only a toddler, he was whisked away by the nuns to America for adoption. Despite a lifetime searching for him in vain, "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him" Philomena explains.
Then she meets Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan), a former TV journalist and New Labour spin doctor, who despite all his cynical instincts is drawn to help the desperate mother. Together they set off to Ireland and then America on a journey to reveal the extraordinary story of what happened to Philomena's son.
"I'm Philomena Lee" she tells the nuns at the convent of Roscrea "And this is is my friend Martin Sixsmith, News At Ten".
The unlikely twosome make a wonderful double act, developing a powerful bond that is both profoundly moving and very funny. Equally refreshing is the reversal in their roles, as it is Steve Coogan who plays the straight man and Dame Judi Dench who gets to show her delightful comic touch. "What if he died in Vietnam?", she asks Martin, "or came back with no legs?"
Seventy eight year old Dench seems to be getting better with age and in this film every wrinkle on her face is used to great effect in careful close-ups as the anguished tracks of her tears.
She plays Philomena with great heart, perfectly capturing not only the accent but also that indomitable spirit of a loveable Irish mama. Maybe this is not surprising, as Dench's own mother was from Dublin. But despite winning great acclaim playing Queen Elizabeth,Queen Victoria and M, Philomena feels like the part she was born to play.
Coogan too excels not only on screen but as producer and screenwriter too, and can surely expect his first Oscar nominations to follow. Veteran director Stephen Frears (The Queen) keeps the action cinematic with a poignant use of home movies and never lets the search slide into sentimentality.
What unfolds in Philomena is a life lesson for us all and if you don't leave the cinema with a tear in your eye and a smile on your face, then regretfully you are made of stone.
Philomena (Cert 12a) is on general release from Friday 1st November
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