Film review: Philomena

Last updated 05:00 09/01/2014

AN ADVENTURE: Philomena (played by Dame Judi Dench) and Martin spend quality time together during their eventful search.

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Directed by Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena is a sincere and harrowing tale.

Inspired by true events, it follows a woman's search for her long lost son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

Every day for 50 years Philomena Lee, a quiet, softly spoken dear old lady relives the memories of her first child with much anguish and discomfort.

Judi Dench plays Philomena. Although we are used to seeing her in more commanding regal roles or as James Bond's no-nonsense boss M, don't be fooled.

This is her most complex role to date and her performance is nothing short of sensational and worthy of an Academy Award.

The film begins with a series of flashbacks, interlaced with close-ups of Dench's ageing facial features. Each wrinkle adjusts slowly each time Philomena relives an emotion.

Through these scenes we get a glimpse of Philomena's pain and it is as strong now as it was all those years ago.

In the flashbacks, Sophie Kennedy Clark plays the heavily pregnant young Philomena, who is abandoned by her family at Sean Ross Abbey. The nuns are obstructive and downright mean: "You are the cause of your shame. You and your own indecency," lectures the mother superior, before reluctantly admitting Philomena into their care.

Furthermore they refuse to offer any pain relief when Philomena goes into a labour, "The pain is her penance. It will help absolve her of her sin."

Worse yet, the convent sells the children to wealthy Americans looking to adopt. After four years of being forced to work in the convent laundry, Philomena is helpless as she watches her Anthony being removed from the convent by an American couple.

After 50 years of keeping quiet about Anthony, the anniversary of his birth causes Philomena to speak up and share her story.

"I'd like to know what he thought of me", Philomena explains to reporter Martin Sixsmith. "I've thought about him every day."

Martin is played by Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the screenplay). He is a well-educated former political journalist who initially believes human-interest stories are for "vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people".

Nevertheless, at his own crossroads Martin can't ignore the potential in this story and invests in the operation of tracking down Philomena's boy.

Coogan and Dench's on-screen chemistry is undeniably charming. Coogan is a well-known British funny man, last seen in one of last year's best comedy, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, but in this role he takes a comedic backseat to Dench who provides most of the best chuckles.

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Coogan gives the film the thoughtful and serious balance that is needed.

The "road trip" Philomena and Martin take is full of amusing exchanges stemming from Philomena's healthy frankness when it comes to discussing sexuality and her constant marvelling at the first-class lifestyle she's experiencing.

It is Martin who has to keep Philomena motivated with the task at hand when she gets sidetracked by the possibility of renting something called "Big Momma's House" from the comfort of their hotel room.

As with most journeys, you need to come full circle to get the perspective you're looking for and Martin, and the film itself, do just that.

After travelling to the United States we return to Ireland to Sean Ross Abbey and it is here where we find our answers.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) manages to make this sedate tale of a woman searching for her son thought provoking and sensitive, while also taking a cynical glance towards the institutions of journalism, politics and religion.

We are again reminded before the end credits that it is a true story and a remarkable one at that.

As Philomena would say this film is "one in a million". 

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