It’s safe to say that Stephen Frears’ post-The Queen career has seen its fair share of ups and downs. While Tamara Drewe was a cheeky and enjoyable romp, it lacked any kind of emotional depth. And his other two efforts, Lay The Favourite and Chéri, were both criticised for being unremarkable (the less said about the former, the better). Philomena, however, which is based on a real-life story, finds the director back on form, with a winning combination of humour and drama creating an enjoyable, yet tender and heartwarming film of exploration and self-discovery.
Left shamed and mildly depressed by his newfound unemployment, former BBC reporter turned Government spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) decides to write a human interest story on humble Irish Catholic Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and her quest to reunite with the son she was forced to give up for adoption. Their pursuit for answers leads them first to Philomena’s childhood home of Roscrea covent in Limerick, Ireland to Washington D.C. in North America, where difficult truths unfold that, over time, bind the pair together.
Based on The Lost Child Of Philomena written by the real-life Sixsmith, Philomena is a real crowd-pleaser, whose merits vastly outweigh its deterrents. It takes a while to find its feet, with many of the early exposition scenes coming across as awkward, cluttered and calculable. But once Martin, putting his cynicism aside for one minute, sees the true potential Philomena’s story carries within it and the two embark on their travels, the pace quickly settles down into a well-balanced, satisfying rhythm that ensures it never outstays its welcome.
It helps that the script, pieced together by Jeff Pope and Coogan, is both rich in detail and deft in characterisation. The narrative as a whole may have broad appeal (some of the beats can be seen a mile-off), but it’s littered with such sharp and off-centre nuances that means there’s far more here than first meets the eye. And, as Philomena’s dreadful backstory is played out and the central relationship deepens (Martin’s bitterness softens, while Philomena faces up to some hard truths), audiences will undoubtedly find themselves won over in the process.
There’s a humour there too that’s well needed and, more often than not, well used, though a couple of the one-liners feel as though they’ve been added in for effect, rather than because they fit with the tone of the film and the relaxed, charming atmosphere created by Frears’ laid back direction and Robbie Ryan’s light-coloured cinematography. In the end, Philomena is endearing and amusing, with two profound performances from Dench and Coogan that do well to both centre it and award it a touching depth of heart.