Review: Philomena (2013)

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench both shine as an unlikely odd couple on a journey to discover the truth, in the charming and emotional Philomena.

Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith made the career-destroying mistake of sending the infamous email of ‘burying bad news’ on September 11, 2001. This resulted in him without much to do in life after he was removed from office. Yet somehow in the aftermath he found his way to writing a book which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film starring Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. As much as it worked out for him, the focus of his story, Philomena, unfortunately does not have quite the same happy ending.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an old Irish lady, is desperately looking for her son who was taken from her as a baby when she was a teenager at a Catholic convent in the 1950s. With plenty of free time on his hands, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) decides to investigate her story and write a book about their search. In true comedy duo fashion, they initially have trouble getting along but as their hunt progresses, taking them to the US and Ireland, this tragic situation slowly sees them warm to each other.

Based on the 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Philomena is a heart-warming film with convincing performances from its two leads; Coogan pulls off the bitter Sixsmith with natural ease, and Dench does likewise with her spot-on portrayal of a god-fearing Irish lady. Together they display the perfect mix of anguish and charm to produce many bittersweet laughs.

And although this might seem at odds with its tale of injustice and sorrow, the conflict of emotions – such as when Coogan gets comically angry or by Dench’s naïve observations – is balanced adeptly by director Stephen Frears (The Queen). He ensures the pulling of the heartstrings isn’t overplayed and the laughter is warm rather than riotous. While this balance tends to veer the film into a rather lightweight drama, the strength lies in its heart and honesty.

Philomema may have been Harvey Weinstein’s best chance of an Oscar in 2014, but  it was never going to rival the star-studded cast of American Hustle, the special effects of Gravity, the individual performances of Dallas Buyers Club, or the emotional punch of 12 Years a Slave. Yet what it did have was the most endearing oddball pairing since Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Main. Coogan and Dench’s charming double-act makes this Best Picture nomination the most enjoyable out of the lot of them.

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