At the Movies - Philomena - review

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About a third of the way through Stephen Frears’ (‘The Queen) film, Judi Dench’s (‘Skyfall’) character ‘Philomena’ turns to Martin Sixsmith, who is played by Steve Coogan (‘The Look of Love’), and says ‘just because you fly in first class doesn’t mean you are a first class person’.

About a third of the way through Stephen Frears’ (‘The Queen) film, Judi Dench’s (‘Skyfall’) character ‘Philomena’ turns to Martin Sixsmith, who is played by Steve Coogan (‘The Look of Love’), and says ‘just because you fly in first class doesn’t mean you are a first class person’.

Philomena Lee, who is played by Judi Dench in the drama 'Philomena', at the Mayfair Hotel in London. Photo: Magnus Sundholm

Philomena Lee, who is played by Judi Dench in the drama 'Philomena', at the Mayfair Hotel in London. Photo: Magnus Sundholm

The same applies to religion.

Just because you wear a nun’s habit or a priest’s collar does not mean good character, kindness and humility are guaranteed.

‘Philomena’ is based on the book ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’, by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith.

Philomena Lee is an Irish woman who became pregnant when she was still a teenager in the early 1950s.

If a woman was pregnant and not married in Ireland in the mid twentieth century the Irish Roman Catholic Church treated her like a criminal. The women were forced into convents by their families and made to work in awful conditions.

Once the children were born the Irish Catholic Church shamefully viewed them as their property and they were sold to couples looking to adopt. Most of the women never saw their children ever again.

Philomena kept the story of her son Anthony a secret for 50 years.

Heartbreaking, uplifting, inspirational and utterly dumfounding are but a few words that describe Frears’ film.

The story of Philomena and her long lost son is what makes the film so striking but what makes the film breathtakingly brilliant are the performances by Dench and Coogan.

Dench’s portrayal of an obedient Irish Catholic typifies a generation and her seamless strides from scene to scene make Philomena one of Dench’s best effort performances.

There’s plenty of comedy along the way too but Dench soars beautifully in the scenes where she says nothing at all. Her eyes are that of a woman filled with pain, fear, guilt but remarkably she still has hope.

Then comes Coogan.

Coogan is outstanding and on more than one occasion threatens to surpass Dench.

Again, it’s the facial expressions and a quivering bottom lip which convey how the character is feeling. No script, no matter how good, could do better. Coogan is so good that there was never a time when Sixsmith’s emotional investment in the story was brought into question. Coogan succeeds brilliantly in presenting a character who becomes increasingly passionate about the story he is trying to tell. It’s simply fantastic to watch.

Thankfully, Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay never looks like it’s about to embrace Hollywood sentimentality. Rather, it opts to let the story flow and any ideas viewers may have that Martin becomes Philomena’s replacement for her long lost son are never entertained.

As the film moves toward a conclusion it becomes evident that Martin got much more than he bargained for before agreeing to tell Philomena’s story.

In the beginning Martin believes human interest stories like Philomena’s are beneath him and it takes him to go on a journey of a lifetime with an extraordinary elderly Irish woman to realise just how much he has to learn about life.

‘Philomena’ is currently showing at the Brunswick Moviebowl; for full cinema listings visit www.brunswickmoviebowl.com or telephone 028 71 37 1999.

VERDICT: 4/5 - Performances by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan make this film utterly breathtaking. It’s not only hard to believe that the story of Philomena Lee and her lost son is true but it’s incredulous to think it occurred as recent as 50 years ago.

It’s a not a Catholic Church bashing movie but the religious organisation don’t walk away completely unscathed.

Dench makes acting appear effortless and Coogan is outstanding.