For a film hailed as Steve Coogan going serious, Philomena is outrageously funny. Make no mistake, this story of an Irish women searching for her long lost son torn from her as a toddler is, inevitably, heartbreaking. But Coogan’s script balances this tearful emotional story with laugh out loud comedy.
The true story of an Irish woman thrown into an abbey as a teenager after getting pregnant and forced to give up her child is a tearjerker if ever there was one. In the hands of other writers it could have easily turned into a pithy social realist drama exploring the damaging effects of catholic policy. But the screenplay Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope have created is delicately balanced to leave the audience laughing uproariously seconds after the tears have been pouring down.
Steve Coogan’s character, real life author of Philomena’s story, Martin Sixsmith, is the character the audience aligns itself with. Depressed and cynical, Coogan is brilliant as Sixsmith and it is he who reflects the anger and indignation the audience feels. Coogan’s observational quips; ‘I’ve never been to a harvester before’ provide laughs, but it is Dench’s Philomena which has the audience in fits. Hilariously funny and heartbreakingly strong, her sense of forgiveness and her faith is what turns the film from the angry and melancholic piece it could have been into something far more uplifting. It would be all too easy to use such a tragic tale as a tirade against the injustices committed against women like Philomena, but the strength of the film is that it doesn’t do this.
Wonderfully written and beautifully played, Philomena is not the film you expect. Part road movie, part British comedy, director Stephen Frears has made a film that despite an apparent simplicity is full of beautiful nuances and incredibly balanced emotional sequences. For a slight tale, Philomena is a film that stays on your mind, but instead of leaving you feeling drained and cynical; it is a tale of letting go and finding forgiveness, there is a full circle of emotions but the prevailing one is uplifting and redemptive. Overall it is a complete joy.