Philomena ★★★★

Premiering in the main competition section at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, and screened at the 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival last month, where it was awarded the ‘People’s Choice First Runner-Up Award’ (behind Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years A Slave), this latest offering from the two-time Academy Award-nominated British director, Stephen Frears proves a sharp, profound and beautifully crafted film (without doubt his finest work in years), and combining Frears’ slick direction with two remarkable performances from its central pair, ‘Philomena’ undoubtedly enters the 86th Academy Awards run-up in a very strong position indeed.

Adapted from the biographical 2009 novel ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’ by Journalist Martin Sixsmith, the film depicts the true story of Irish Catholic, Philomena Lee, who was forcibly separated from her three-year-old son, Anthony, by the nuns of an Irish convent, Rosecrea, during the early 1950′s.

When Philomena (Judi Dench) confides that, fifty-years previously, she had given birth to a son in Ireland whom she had been forced to give up for adoption as he was born out of wedlock, Philomena’s daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) approaches the recently discharged Labour government adviser, Martin (Steve Coogan) with the idea for a human interest story, and although initially dismissing the idea, finally decides to take on the story when an editor shows her interest.

After meeting the elderly Philomena and hearing her moving story, the unique, utterly-contrasting couple embark on what proves a truly fascinating journey together, taking them from the rural Irish market town of Rosecrea, the home of the enigmatic Rosecrea convent, across the Atlantic to the vast expanse of Washington D.C.

What initially begins to tread familiar melodrama territory quickly develops into quite a tense and increasingly compelling mystery as the pair continue their search for the truth, with the film effectively revealing the political and religious repercussions on the lives of both mother and son, across the eras, and distinctly juxtaposing the anxiety and tension between the cynical, atheistic Martin and the straightforward, naive, religious fundamentalist, Philomena.

Brilliantly constructed though the film is, the piece ultimately rests on the strength of two outstanding performances from its central duo. Exhibiting an excellent Irish accent, Judi Dench delivers one her strongest and most affecting performances to date in the title role, beautifully navigating the variations in pathos and humour and instilling the character with a powerful sense of intimacy and emotional depth.

It is very difficult when watching Steve Coogan to suppress the thoughts of his most famous creation, Alan Partridge, and though we do get little signs of the famous narcissistic Radio Norwich DJ popping up now and then, Coogan delivers what is on the whole a very restrained and nuanced perfomance as Martin. The chemistry between the two is a real joy to watch as their relationship develops, and ultimately Coogan’s condemning audience surrogate proves the perfect complement to Dench’s blunt Philomena.

Sophie Kennedy Clark deserves a special mention too for her affecting perfomance as the Young Philomena.

Co-written by Coogan and screenwriter Jeff Pope, the duo deservedly picked up the award for Best Screenplay at Venice for what is overall a very astute and really quite excellent screenplay, cleverly balancing moments of poignant, heartbreaking drama and tension with Coogan’s familiar brand of sharp, sarcastic observational humour to superb effect.

A moving and ultimately heartwarming film, beautifully enhanced by the elegant cinematography of Robbie Ryan and the stirring score from the ever impressive five-time Academy Award-nominated French composer, Alexandre Desplat.