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Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Barbara Jefford, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Peter Hermann, Ruth McCabe

Director: Stephen Frears

The narrative is gripping – jaundiced former political spindoctor-turned-freelance journalist Martin Sixsmith is introduced by her daughter to elderly Irishwoman Philomena Lee who, pregnant as a teenager, gave birth to a son (“Did you enjoy your sin?” asks an unsympathetic nun as Philomena suffers an agonizing birth) in the Irish Catholic convent of Roscrea in 1952 and was then forced into gruelling labour in the convent laundry.

In 1955, the convent allowed the boy to be adopted, without consulting Philomena, by a wealthy American family. Now Philomena wants to be reunited with her son. And she and Sixsmith embark on a fascinating odyssey that illuminates the lives and characters of both mother and journalist…

Where Philomena succeeds brilliantly in its ability to combine harrowing drama (the young mother’s misery working in the laundry is pungent, vividly recalling Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, with genuine comedy arising from character and not simply grafted onto the narrative for a laugh and, above all, in picture perfect performances.

Judi Dench is magnificent, ignoring obvious acting tropes to become the person she is playing and clearly putting herself in line for major acting award nominations; and Sophie Kennedy Clark is excellent as her young self.

But who could have imagined the real surprise of the film – a very fine, convincing characterization by Steve Coogan as Sixsmith?

Prior to Philomena I would have bet big money against the concept that Coogan could actually act rather than skimming along the surface as the increasingly irritating Alan Partridge, or embarrassing himself and the audience (if any) with his performance as Soho porn king Paul Raymond in the truly appalling biopic The Look of Love whose only surprise was that Raymond did return from the dead to take revenge on all concerned with the making of the film.

Coogan bonds beautifully with Dench: neither attempts to upstage the other but they work as a team to deliver a strong, sentimental movie with a sharp cutting edge that indicts – and, as illustrated here, not without cause – casual cruelty in the convent where Philomena ‘lived’.

“This isn’t the way I wanted it”, states Philomena when her odyssey reaches its climax in the United States. For Stephen Frears, whose understated direction is always aimed at telling a strong story as well as possible rather than deployed in ways to prove him an auteur, Dench, Coogan et al, Philomena is enjoyably the way they wanted it.

(And, for British cinemagoers, the film stands high as a rare (very rare) production whose use of the BBC licence fee and lottery cash (now the province of the British Film Institute) represents money well spent.

Alan Frank

UK/USA/France 2013. UK Distributor: Pathe. Colour.
97 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.

Review date: 10 Nov 2013