Retrospective Film Review: Stephen Frears’ Philomena

Not since The Queen in 2006 has Stephen Frears made such a dignified and rather magnificent film. His film, but indicatively a personal project of Steve Coogan’s, addresses the ethically murky practice employed by the Catholic Church during the 1950s in Ireland whereby a county convent in Tipperary took in young mothers and their illicit children, before selling their progeny off to visiting Americans in search of adoptees.

The film follows one of these mothers, Philomena Lee (a predictably faultless and gentle portrayal by Judi Dench) and her chance encounter with journalist and broadcaster Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who resolves to try something new (“what we call a Human Interest story”) following his dismissal from Number 10. Irrespective of the outcome of his investigative efforts on Philomena’s behalf (his editor simply tells him to list the “goodies” and “baddies”), it’s a guaranteed winner of a story for Sixsmith, one that may be spun any which way and still incur massive readership. It’s a particularly wry choice of a role for Coogan, a man who has been singularly vocal in his displeasure for tabloid hackery and journalistic malfeasance, knowledge that gives his tropey sapere aude role an added weight and depth.

The pairing of Coogan and Dench also reminds one of Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (Rob Brydon’s Season Three replacement Michael?), and the couple’s gradual melting of suspicions and slow budding of affection for one another is delicately and sensitively orchestrated.

For me though, it was particularly satisfying to find such a potentially ungainly clash between the sobriety of the lost child storyline and affable humour mesh with such consonance. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to offer that this is British filmmaking at one of its many finest levels – winsome, unshowy, and quietly resonant.