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London Film Festival 2013: Philomena - Review


Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

DAME Judi Dench and Steve Coogan make an endearing odd couple at the centre of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, a generally absorbing true life tale that tugs at the heart-strings.

Inspired by Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film follows devout Irish Catholic woman Philomena (Dame Judi) as she decides to find her son more than 50 years after she was forced, as an unmarried mother, to give him up for adoption by nuns who also took her in.

In doing so, she enlists the help of initially sceptical political advisor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) and the two go on a journey that takes them from rural Ireland to Washington DC.

Frears’ film, from a screenplay that was adapted by both Coogan and Jeff Pope, has plenty of surprises up its sleeve in the way that the story unfolds, while posing moral and ethical questions that are likely to be debated long after it has finished.

Religion (its benefits and abuses) is primary among them, but there’s also the power of forgiveness, the role of the media and family relationships thrown into the mix. As such, Frears’ film enrages as much as it uplifts and there are those who will certainly find certain moments tear-jerking.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Some of the dialogue, especially, is clunky while some of Dame Judi’s comic naivety grates – Coogan does seem to have saved a lot of the best (and most sarcastically funny) lines for himself.

The pacing also flags in places and there are certain scenes that feel awkward and contrived, both in terms of progressing the story or balancing the drama with some comedy.

But the film does engage and benefits immensely from the chemistry between Coogan and Dame Judi, which is often quite charming. Dame Judi, for her part, imbues her Philomena with enough strength and resolve to get away with some of her more naive moments and wears her sorrow on her sleeve. A moment in which she clutches the arm of Sixsmith to reassure him that she does love her son, despite having given him up, feels real (and echoes an identical comment made by the real-life Philomena during the film’s preparation).

Coogan, though, is equally good value, nicely balancing some of Sixsmith’s more self-pitying or self-serving motives with a gradual appreciation and admiration for his travel colleague. And his journey pretty much reflects that of a significant part of the audience, culminating in a couple of final angry scenes that will arguably echo your own.

Hence, for all its flaws Philomena remains an engaging and memorable journey… one that successfully casts fresh light on a shameful chapter in history while pointing a finger at contemporary attempts to cover it up. It’s a story of bravery and eventual healing that capably does justice to the real-life complexity of what occurred.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 98mins
UK Release Date: November 1, 2013
London Film Festival Dates: October 16 (OLS, 7.15pm), October 17 (Cineworld Haymarket, 6.30pm), October 19 (Screen on the Green, 6.15pm)