If ever proof were needed, which of course it isn’t, of Dame Judi Dench‘s acting ability then Philomena will go down as a masterclass in poignancy and depth from one of the finest actors to have lived. Adapted from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, itself based on a true story, Philomena is deftly directed by Stephen Frears from a script co-written by star Steve Coogan.
Unemployed former journalist-turned-spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) finds himself researching a ˜human interest’ story about Philomena Lee (Dench), an Irish woman who gave up her child for adoption in the 1950s. Having kept that part of her life secret for 50 years, she suddenly reveals all and the two head off in search of the lost child.
The subject matter is every bit as heart-breaking as it sounds, but in the hands of Frears, Coogan and Dench it never becomes overly sentimental or depressing. The light comic touches that pervade throughout the excellent script keep the story from delving into melodrama or overt sadness. The tone is sad but hopeful and while Philomena struggles a touch with its narrative structure, it is based on a true story and any tinkering with the reality of the situation would have reduced its impact.
Dench gives the performance of the year as the titular Philomena, but without Coogan alongside, it may have been a very different matter. Obviously keen to extend himself away from his hugely popular comic roles, Coogan plays Sixsmith with a combination of stoic journalistic righteous indignation and ˜New Labour’ spin doctor arrogance. The result is a believable character of depth who veers from unlikable to heroic in the space of a line of dialogue. It is Dench who will likely receive the plaudits, but Coogan is better than ever in this dramatic role, and highlights just what a talented and under-appreciated actor he truly is.
A personal, deeply moving and exceptionally acted film, Philomena might be a little too close-to-the-bone for all peoples taste. But with this much talent on display, it deserves the plaudits being thrown at it and is a great dramatic small-scale film with big ambitions.