For fans of cougar Dench or hench Coogan, Philomena is the film for you. For fans of both it is heaven (if there is one…) Dame Judi Dench and Steve ‘Leveson Inquiry’ Coogan may seem an odd couple. Put Q next to Sir Alan Partridge. That is the reason behind director Stephen Frears’ genius casting of these two genuine ‘national treasures’. Dench goes all doddery old dear to play the role of Philomena, a mother who tragically lost her young son in the 50s and Coogan plays a smarmy smart arse cynic: a journalist and former spin doctor to Harriet Harmann and Alasdair Darling.
Before this feels like a litany of previous credits, there is one really relevant reference point: Coogan’s character in BBC Two’s The Trip. Aesthetically, both in reality and the fictitious world of screen, Philomena is a realisation of Coogan’s inflated self in the extended reality comedy series. Firstly, the film sees Coogan achieve the allusive Hollywood success that so alludes his desperate dalliances with fame in The Trip. Here, we have Coogan producing and starring in a low budget ‘art’ film with a world renowned producer, subsequently nominated for four Academy Awards. Coogan has well and truly landed beyond the shores of Blighty. Secondly, Martin Sixsmith, the author of the book and star of the story, shares a similar nihilism that suffocates Coogan’s character. Both run. Both are depressed after losing the limelight of self-importance and grandiose fame. Both look lonely and longingly upon land locked landscapes. Trapped in their own world of isolation. They seek redemption.
Sixsmith seems an acutely self aware individual who casts himself as a paradigm of the grammar schooled, Oxford elite that dominate the political class alongside the traditional ‘Bullers’ of Boris Cameron and co. Frears achieves the dichotomy between Sixsmith and Philomena Lee through a quintessential generational opposition based on class and religion. Coogan’s Sixsmith is fettered by the narcissism of the neo-bourgeoisie, a BMW driving atheist who is driven by a critical filter that never coasts in neutral. Philomena is a classic widower, gently reflective, mass everyday, kind spirited, always conversational and strangely Irish. This is Dame Judy, Judy, Judy JudAY after all.
Sixsmith sets out to solve the ‘human interest’ story of Philomena Lee presented by a cameoing Anna Maxwell Martin who, here, is underused but more often underrated. Philomena was a victim of the Catholic church’s capitalist consumption of bastard babies. The money spinning model was simple. Baby conceived. Ashamed mother locked away and enslaved in the convent. Baby brought up by nuns for mums. Americans brought over. Baby bought by highest bidder. Stolen from the natural mother at the age of three or four in broad daylight. No Chinese style messing around on shady Skype for these sisters. The babies normally fetched four figures, the human cost is incalculable. The scale of this 1950s catastrophe is undiscovered, buried by the church’s fire fighting from the scandals that habitually beset those in habits. The nuns just set fire to the documents. Laughing in the face of those seeking retribution, retaliation or redemption.
While Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, the winner of best foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards, shares themes with Philomena; opposition between its protagonists, Catholicism, the setting of a convent, the pursuit of reconciliation through uncovering the truth, both stories arc around the search for a burial site, perhaps Calvary is the best comparison. Philomena and Calvary, the Brendan Gleeson starring ecclesiastical western, are the male and female responses to the historic abuses of the holy. Calvary was a palaver of priest, in Philomena the fun is had with the nun. ‘Evil nuns’ to be precise. They block Philomena from the truth for years. Her son, Michael Hess, née Anthony Lee, fares no better. Despite his visit from America to seek burial at the convent, Sister Hildegarde, denies a dying man his right to reconciliation. It is an abject, horror of a depiction of the church, atheistic slander from a heretic or the simple act of cutting through the spin. Whatever Sixsmith does, he exposes the fact from years of faith in fiction. Whereas Calvary was innovative in its inversion of the scandals, making the priest the victim, Philomena is one dimensional in only one sense: its total war on the crimes of the Catholics.
Amongst all this bellicose banter, there is still fun to be had in this belter of a film. Strangely, considering Coogan the stand-up, the one liners nearly all fall to Dench, Sixsmith’s intellectual humour falling on deaf ears. While Sixsmith type casts ‘Phil’ as an oldie reared on a diet of reader’s digest and daily mail (they don’t deserve their capitals), she is as astute and savvy as her younger ally in the war on terrorising nuns. “He was gay…Did he have any children?” and “He might have played the harp…He was gay” are two favourites, though her panic at the thought of Anthony’s possible obesity due to the portion sizes in the States is a nice nugget. It is a delicately handled film that allows its material to breathe slowly into life without rushing through the character building in pursuit of quick release emotional endings. The tears are revealed in instalments and the early scenes of Anthony’s adoption are the most rawly unnerving as Sophie Kennedy Clark provides perfect pathos. But all this is balanced by the most gentle and received humour that purrs throughout the film.
One to enjoy too is spotting the retro features of the nearly modern setting (2003). For me, it was the speed with which Coogan downloads the first image he receives of Anthony in America. The SONY struggles to receive this micro-data before finally loading the file. Fortunately, the film follows the laptop’s lead and takes its time to dwell on the low key moments in order to create an effective, affecting film. An earthly heaven.