My grandmother is a feverish watcher of "based on a true story" movies. Without fail, every time we decide to watch a film as a family, she will refuse to watch anything else, and she usually sheds a few tears at the conclusion. Bracing myself for a tear-jerking, grandmother-pleasing film, I quickly realised that 'Philomena' was something far superior.
A journey of redemption and discovery is undertaken as we follow Philomena (Dame Judy Dench). As a younger woman in an age of ignorance and disapproval, she falls pregnant and, like so many girls in that time, is swept off to a convent for the term of her pregnancy and beyond. Her child is taken from her, and a secret is born and held for the next 50 years. That is until an out-of-luck spin doctor turned journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), discovers her story and they travel as far as the U.S. to find her son.
Just when you thought you had seen all sides of Steve Coogan's acting range, a film like this comes along, with the depth of his performance going far beyond his usual comic range. What is more amazing is that he was a co-writer and a producer on the project, which might well be the reason for the depth of heart he has both shown and put into 'Philomena'. Judy Dench as Philomena is a powerhouse, managing to capture both an innocent and naïve view of the world, countered by her adamant understanding of her position in it. As an onscreen pair, they have a chemistry that works beyond all imagining.
Steve Coogan might well be the reason for the depth of heart he has both shown and put into 'Philomena'.
It is the balancing act between comedy and drama in 'Philomena' that lifts it above the average "based on a true story" film we all know and expect. The most dramatic moments are countered with a throwaway comedic line that adds to the grace of the film, and let's be honest - there is noting better than an old lady swearing. The way the film handles the atrocities conducted by the Catholic Church and the good guy/bad guy dynamic of personal interest stories is handled with ease - and while being central themes, these don't over bear the story, which could easily have happened.
'Philomena' certainly has the smell of a success for the Oscars, if nothing else for Dench’s performance and Coogan’s screenplay. With such grace, conviction and simple-yet-effective storytelling, it could even have all the hallmarks to be in the running for Best Picture.