Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham & Sean Mahon.
Oscar Nominations: 4
Best Picture, Actress in a Leading Role (Judi Dench), Writing – Adapted Screenplay (Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope)
“I didn’t see that coming. Not in a million years!”
It’s a tricky conceit to locate the moral fibre and lighthearted comedy of your film in a character as earnestly and conscientiously pedestrian as Philomena Lee (Dench). Indeed, Coogan’s script and character (Martin Sixsmith, a disgraced politician-turned- journalist) spends much of the first third of the film trying to find a balance between winking at the audience knowingly whenever the eponymous protagonist slings a platitude his way and acknowledging that such attitude towards life may be the more desirable. It’s not quite that the film is advancing an “ignorance is bliss” motto so that the reader of romance novels is valued over the journalist who aims to write about Russian history. That would, in itself run counter to the plot of a film which is so interested in acquiring knowledge. What there is here is a strain in wanting to frame Philomena’s character and story (full of hope, forgiveness, and wonderment) in a world full of irony and urbanity: how does one tell a straightforward story about a mother looking into a child taken from her from “evil nuns” without it being read as maudlin as the human interest piece that motivates the film’s plot and which gives us said by-line as the promise and premise of the film? The answer, as it turns out, is to give your film over to Judi Dench, who in playing against type (has she really been only playing knowing women who control whichever room they enter, or am I willfully forgetting a character as soft and pliable as this in her resume?) Her unselfconscious and compassionate portrayal of Philomena (a character which could so easily have lent itself to condescension if her unwavering niceties weren’t played for warmth rather than laughs) manages to wrestle the film away from the arched irony of Coogan’s Sixsmith and the cloying sentimentality of its plot. Just as Philomena herself then, the film is enjoyable and light, unencumbered by the larger political and religious questions we may be invited to ask but not for that blissfully unaware of them. In this the audience is encouraged to chime in as Philomena does and say “I didn’t see that coming. Not in a million years!” even though, of course, we only do so to oblige our gracious and grateful host. B-