Philomena ★★★★

As far as foot in mouth disease goes, the mix of electronic communication and the mass media have opened up a whole new frontier of consequence. In 2002, Martin Sixsmith, an ex-BBC journalist who had come to work in the civil service, discovered as much when his attempt to head off another faux pas by Labour press officer Jo "9-11's a good day to bury bad news" Moore via email. Unfortunately, his poorly worded rebuke was leaked and the ensuing political frenzy saw a very public end to his career.

It wasn't quite the same decades earlier. Back then people got around blinkered by a sense of social propriety. Information was much easier to keep a handle on, especially for the more archaic of our institutions. In 1952, a young woman named Philomena Lee found herself unwed but in the "family way". Her son was born with the assistance of the nuns of the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, and as recompense for their troubles, the church took three years of Philomena's freedom and her child. Nobody in the outside world was any the wiser.

These two unlikely stories intertwined in 2004 when Sixsmith, while unsuccessfully shopping around a book on Russian history, happened upon Lee's story and, though skeptical about so-called "human interest" journalism, agreed to investigate. Now, with the help of director Stephen Frears, the inimitable acting of Dame Judi Dench and the popular heft of Steve Coogan, Sixsmith's work has been crafted into a feature film.

Philomena Lee finally gets her own dose of mass media and the results are predictably affecting.

Philomena is not a large scale production, nor is it a flashy one, but what it lacks in glamour it more than makes up for in the eloquent, well-balanced screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope and its duo of perfectly attuned performances.

In complete control of his characterisation, Coogan doesn't pull punches as Martin Sixsmith. He is every inch the wounded Oxbridge scholar, still smarting from the unjust treatment of his peers and he uses every opportunity to look down on the provincial Irish woman and her family. It is not an endearing portrait but it is exceptionally well pitched. Sixsmith's hard-edged atheism provides a perfectly modulated, if somewhat uncomfortable, sounding board for Philomena's enduring, and to my mind misplaced, faith. Coogan's performance will be readily forgotten though. He may be the acerbic entertainment but ultimately he's just a sideshow; it is Dench who everyone has come to see and she turns out an immaculate performance. 

Dench's take on Philomena is utterly absorbing, not just for its expected fullness of heart, but also for its frankness, its humour and its gentle take on her immense inner conflict. It is a subtle play. There are times when Dench's performance is in danger of being dismissed as "generic, doddery old lady" but to her credit (and the credit of Coogan and Pope's screenplay) she never fails to find a way to come out and kick the tyres. It's a performance that really comes into focus when Philomena and Martin arrive in Washington to continue their efforts to track down her stolen child. Her handling of some of the film's less expected revelations pin some well placed barbs in a good many ageist stereotypes and add immeasurably to the lustre of the character.

For his part, Frears keeps a firm hand on the film's direction. He may drive it a little to squarely down the middle of the road for some but, considering how many (myself included) would have preferred him to careen the production headlong into the Catholic Church, his restraint is exceptionally brave.

In the end it is also entirely welcome.

Philomena, for almost the entirety of its runtime is an extraordinarily even-handed affair, with Philomena, the story's most empathetic character, bending over backwards to explain the church's reprehensible actions. In fact, it could be argued that, with her and Martin going at it like a theological odd couple for the bulk of the film, Philomenia is one of the most considered discussions of faith to come out in cinemas in recent years. If there is a slip-up, it is that Coogan and Frears overstep their "true story" bounds by exhuming one of the Roscrea nuns to dish out some unrepentant fire and brimstone in the film's final confrontation. While I prefer to see it as the actions of the church manifested in a single narrative juncture, others look upon it as the injection of an unnecessarily cartoonish villain.

In any event, the final conflict, manufactured or otherwise, provides the film with a searing expression of faith-driven closure. It is a moment that Martin, as an atheist was not expecting. It is a moment that I was not expecting. It is a moment that perfectly encapsulates the remarkable character of the real life Philomena Lee. And it is the moment where Dench's performance does her most proud. It is not often an atheist will admit to being schooled by the religious but there you have it. If it comes at the cost of the reputation of a dead child-stealing nun, I can live with that.

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