"Philomena" looks like your typical British prestige project. There's a remarkable true story about a lost child at its center, dependable Judi Dench playing the little old Irish lady title character, and a good dose of humor and whimsy to lighten the pathos. The story is framed by the experiences of a reporter, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, who initially starts out as a cynic and a grump. He first dismisses Philomena's search for her son Anthony, who was forcibly separated from her and given to unknown foster parents by the nuns at a convent where she lived, as just a "human interest story." But after some further investigation and Odd Couple travels with Philomena, he comes away with a more agreeable worldview. Sounds like something perfect to take your parents to, doesn't it?
However, it's notable that the film was written by Coogan, a UK comedian with a long career in satirical programs, whose other big cinematic foray in 2013 was the "Alan Partridge" movie. Here he's put away the stings and barbs in the name of tackling more substantive, thoughtful material, but some of the sharper edged humor still gets through, and there is remarkably little sentiment, considering that so much of the story revolves around a missing child. One fascinating element that he does include is the discussion of faith. Philomena is a staunchly devout Catholic who doesn't blame the Church or the nuns for what happened to her, and Martin is an atheist with a far less forgiving nature. They clash throughout the film, often with very humorous results, and eventually learn to coexist. Dench and Coogan make for an entertaining pair, and keep the movie consistently watchable, even as the story treads on some very familiar territory.
The scope of the film is right. No grand monologues or weighty statements pass anyone's lips. The big dramatic moments are often fairly subdued. The larger fallout of the illegal adoptions is alluded to, but kept in the background. Instead of the lone woman against the monolithic Catholic Church narrative that we'd expect, events are kept very small and very personal, focusing on the relationship that develops between Martin and Philomena. Philomena herself is kept wonderfully human, full of conflicting doubts and worries every step of the way, but revealing great reserves of strength when necessary. She's one of the sweetest and most lovable characters I think Dench has ever gotten to play, but at no point is she overly idealized.
Coogan is an entertainer I've seen pop up in a variety of different projects over the years, but he's never made much of an impression on me, even where he's had major roles like in "The Trip." In "Philomena" he finally did, I think because there's an appealing self-critical streak in his portrayal of Martin Sixsmith, who is taken to task repeatedly for his caustic personality and alienating behavior. He also makes a good stand-in for the audience, who has probably sat through one too many of these uplifting issue pictures or quaint UK comedy-dramas over the years to be immediately receptive to Philomena's story. I hope that Coogan does this kind of material more often, because he's well suited for it.
A share of kudos should go to director Stephen Frears, who has a very eclectic filmography that ranges from thrillers like "The Grifters" and "Dirty Pretty Things" to romantic comedies like "High Fidelity" to prestige pics like "The Queen." His work on "Philomena" is quiet and restrained, distinguished by a few inventive touches like old home movie footage gradually filling in the details of Anthony's life as Martin and Philomena uncover more about him, and a title sequence where a young Philomena examines herself in a warped funhouse mirror. Most of the visuals are dominated by wintry landscapes and domestic interiors, with lot of subtle and not-so-subtle religious iconography peppered throughout.
There have been some criticisms of the film as being anti-Catholic, which strikes me as pretty absurd when the film has one of the most evenhanded approaches to faith and religion that I've seen in a while. A big part of Martin Sixsmith's arc is coming to the point where he respects Philomena's faith, even if he doesn't share in it himself. Moreover, there are all kinds of caveats and reminders that the crimes perpetrated against Philomena were only carried out by a few, and that the modern day Catholic Church is quite different from the old one.
There are few enough films that bother to acknowledge religion, let alone discuss it as frankly and and as candidly as Martin and Philomena do, as they get to know one another. And while the Church does play a big part in the film, the subject of "Philomena" remains the woman at its center, and her decisions in dealing with her private tragedies. And it's what makes it worth the watch.