Directed by Stephen Fears
Script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Based on the true story in “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith
Produced by Steve Coogan
Judi Dench as Philomena
Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith
Sophie Kennedy Clark as Young Philomena
This is the fourth Steve Coogan performance I’ve seen in a year (The Look of Love, What Maisie Knew, Alpha Papa) and his acting grows and grows on me. He’s subtle, dead pan with a light throw away humour. Philomena is a true story and what used to be called in the 1950s a three hankie weepy, but nevertheless it got more sudden shocked bursts of laughter from the audience than the vast majority of out and out comedies. It does have “comedy” on the poster, and the sustained hilarity of the long ride through an airport while Philomena painstakingly tells him the plot of a historical romance she’s just read, will be one to watch and watch again. But in the end, it’s sadness that dominates.
This one is obviously personal to Coogan, in that he produced, co-scripted and starred in the true story. He and Judi Dench both give deeply moving and deeply involving performances as Sixsmith and Philomena. But as well as drawing in our emotions so effectively, both Coogan and Dench, such an unlikely pairing ten years ago, have perfect comedy timing on their lines.
The young Philomena
Philomena was a young Irish girl who got pregnant out of wedlock in the 1950s and was committed to the tender cares of the Magdalene Sisters. She gives birth (breech) in the convent with no professional help. Many girls died in childbirth there. She was used as slave labour seven days a week in the laundry, only allowed to see her child one hour a day. Without telling her the child was given for adoption. Fifty years on she still thinks of her lost son. Her daughter met the then somewhat disgraced ex-BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith and asked him to help. His immediate reaction is “I don’t do human interest stories …” but he does.
First stop in the quest: Ireland
Ironically it’s a huge human interest story. He gets involved, and sets out to find the lost son. He uncovers a web of downright lies by the sisters at the Convent. These pious people in the Catholic church were said to genuinely believe they were doing right in punishing the sin of “fornication”. I don’t believe it for a moment. Great evils were committed, with Ireland being a special centre for them. Sadists and bullies are sadists and bullies. I love Sixsmith’s line to the twisted old Sister Hildegaard, and I’m not going to spoil it here. (It is in fact an addition to the film version).
Their quest leads them to America when they find out that the children were sold by the convent for £1000 a time to American Catholics. They do trace the son, but no plot spoilers because the web is so intriguing. It’s all true and way more convoluted and complex than Sixsmith and his editors could ever have imagined, with the biggest twists near the end. Sixsmith wrote a book about it and Coogan must have decided to put it on film.
The impeccable acting performances of Coogan, Dench and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the Philomena of fifty years ago will resonate for a long time. It’s Awards Season, which is why the film reviews are coming thick and fast here. Speilberg and others bemoan the lurch of film into action-packed spectacle at the expense of dialogue and narrative. But these rich smaller character driven films are maintaining a definite position, and filling seats too. Coogan should know, he’s done three in a row, plus a decent comedy romp in Alpha Papa.