What a year 2013 has been for Steve Coogan. After with working with Michael Winterbottom on The Look of Love, a supporting role in the acclaimed What Maisie Knew, voicing a character in one the year’s funniest films Despicable Me 2 and bringing Alan Partridge to the big screen in Alpha Papa, Philomenamarks Coogan’s fifth role of the year.
The Brightonian has also co-written and produced Philomena, which is based on Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. The plot of the film is relatively simple. Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), an unemployed and frustrated journalist, meets Philomena, a gentle, elderly, Irish lady (Judi Dench), who is looking for her son. She was forced to give the child for adoption when he was a baby by nuns, who were taking care of her at the time. Together, Martin and Philomena embark on the quest of tracking him down, despite the nuns’ suspicious refusal to cooperate. Directed by Stephen Frears, who is very good at finding the balance between drama and (very British) humour, Philomena is extremely enjoyable. Judi Dench sets a benchmark (or perhaps a Denchmark?) as the title character and has brilliant chemistry with Coogan, who not only gets to show off his comedic range but also his dramatic acting chops. The film lives by the moments between the well-educated, slightly arrogant Sixsmith and the naïve, unworldly Philomena, which are full of charm and wit. Highlights include several discussions about religion (the line ‘Fucking catholics’ perfectly delivered by Coogan got a round of applause from the audience in my screening) and Judi Dench describing the plot of her kitschy romantic novel to an eye-rolling Steve Coogan. However, Stephen Frears’ traditional weaknesses are also obvious in Philomena. Visually, the film does not look very cinematic and perhaps a bit uninteresting, and it does have a slight tendency to descend into melodrama. Furthermore, Alexandre Desplat’s (decent) score feels a bit repetitive and overused, but overall, Philomena is a fascinating and very entertaining investigation of the natural, unbreakable bond between mother and child and probably Frears’ best work since High Fidelity. Rating: ★★★★