The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Philomena | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Philomena

An English journalist teams with an elderly Irish woman to track down the son taken from her as a teenager.

Directed by: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham

Spin Doctor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) loses his job as director of communications for Tony Blair's government and sets about re-entering the world of journalism. He meets Philomena Lee (Dench), an elderly Irish woman now living in London, who tells him the story of how, as a teenager, she was forced to give away her child by nuns; punishment for having sex out of wedlock. At first Martin dismisses the story, considering himself above "human interest" stories, but, with his journalistic options limited, he takes on the story, accompanying Philomena on a journey to find the whereabouts of the son she hasn't seen in over 50 years.
Stephen Frears' latest film, written by star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, is an adaptation of Martin Sixsmith's factual book 'The Lost Child of Philomena Lee'. It's not a story I was previously familiar with. Living in Ireland, I'm exposed to so many ghastly tales of abuses (be they physical, emotional or psychological) wrought upon everyday people by the Catholic Church that it's easy to overlook the details of specific cases. Philomena Lee was one of thousands of young Irish girls imprisoned by the Church in institutions known as "Magdalene Laundries", where they were essentially put to work as slave labor. Many girls didn't make it through their sentences, either dying from the poor physical conditions or committing suicide as a result of psychological abuse. The "crime" committed by these young women was becoming pregnant out of wedlock and the children of these girls were sold by the Church to wealthy foreigners, mostly Americans. There are few Irish people who don't know of someone affected by this scandal; an aunt of mine spent years tracking down her son, finally locating him Stateside several years ago. The Church did their best to prevent their reunion, as is the case with Philomena and her child here.
This subject was covered in Peter Mullan's harrowing 2002 film 'The Magdalene Sisters' but the film-makers here opt for a far lighter tone, essentially turning the story into a classic road comedy, putting two disparate personalities (Sixsmith's highbrow atheist, Philomena's lowbrow Catholic) together, and it pays off wonderfully. The approach reminds me of Preston Sturges' masterpiece 'Sullivan's Travels', in which Joel McCrea's pretentious film-maker learns that if he wants to help everyday people he's better off providing them with entertainment than dour and patronizing drama. 'Philomena' owes a lot to Sturges' film; Sixsmith's character arc is almost identical to McCrea's, learning to warm to the "little" people he previously held in contempt, while a sequence involving Philomena's excitement at a trailer for 'Big Momma's House' recalls the 1941 film's most famous moment.
As an Irishman I've frowned at dozens of awful attempts, (some even from Irish actors themselves), at Irish accents. Dench, however, delivers a perfect accent for someone who grew up in Ireland but spent their later life in England, and her performance is one of the best of the year and quite possibly the best of the actress' career. Coogan is more subdued than usual, taking a backseat to the Dame, but he perfectly captures the frustration of someone forced to spend time with a personality he finds grating. It takes a while for Sixsmith to warm to Philomena but you'll warm to the duo instantly.

Eric Hillis