Philomena ★★★

Despite its positive critical reception I had been wary of watching Philomena, dismissing it as a manipulative weepy aimed at a mature market. Yet whilst it is manipulative in parts and liable to cause a teary eye on more than one occasion I’m pleased to say my snap assessment was rather wide of the mark. In fact it is possibly Stephen Frears best film in years.

Philomena tells the story of a cynical political journalist and disgraced spin doctor who takes up the story of the eponymous Philomena, an elderly Irish woman looking for a son who was stolen from her by nuns 50-years earlier. Falling pregnant as an unmarried teen she was disowned by her family and forced to work in Catholic run laundries (as seen in the harrowing The Magdalene Sisters) where her young son was sold to an American couple without her knowledge or consent.

It is a heartbreaking story of injustice yet the film possesses a surprising and welcome lightness. Not that it doesn’t deliver in the emotional moments, whether it be the flashback to when her son is so cruelly taken or when she discovers about her child’s life in America, but the film is framed as an odd couple road movie rather than an emotional grind through Philomena’s suffering and desperate quest for answers.

It is in these moments shared between the jaded journalist and naive retired nurse that the film really works. Co-written by the film’s star - Steve Coogan - these encounters between two very different people provide plenty of lightly humorous moments even if Philomena’s portrayal is a little too broad and patronising at times, particularly in the way the pair are so clearly contrasted.

Thankfully, with Judi Dench in the title role she is able to soften the crude scripting delivering one of her best performances in years. Although she remains charmingly naive throughout the past has left an indelible mark and she plays the film’s main moments beautifully, effortlessly capturing the heartache of a 50-year injustice. Naturally, the Catholic church emerge as the villains but Philomena’s faith never wavers as she is able to forgive those who wronged her and countless others like her.

Steve Coogan also provides strong support as the writer who scoffs at human interest stories despite writing one that succumbs to all the same cliches and emotional manipulation. His character might not be that much of a stretch (it seems impossible not to be reminded of Alan Partridge on more than a few occasions) but it is a subtler and less overtly comedic performance than we normally see from him. It is only a shame that most of the other characters - be it the cruel nuns or Coogan’s ice queen of an editor - are painted so broadly.

Naturally the film can’t escape its sentimental streak but given the real life travesty at the centre of the story I can’t begrudge these moments too much. Philomena might not be the most ambitious or sophisticated film but it remains beautifully performed, bittersweet and occasionally affecting.

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