There’s a lot at stake in Philomena. The emotional crux of the film is a horrifying revelation that an abbey in Ireland “sold” the children to wealthy Americans against the will of the unwed teenage mothers in their care. It’s a true story (and one of the American recipients was Hollywood star Jane Russell), but Stephen Frears’ film tells a different story. Instead, we follow one of the mothers, Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), on her journey to find her lost son. Joining her on the journey is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced press secretary returning to journalism because no one is interested in his books about Russian history. In order to get his inane human interest piece, the depressed Sixsmith, with his condescending upper class attitudes, has to spend time with the cheerful working class Philomena, who reads cheap romance novels and puts her faith in God.
Frears’ film is based on a book by the actual Martin Sixsmith, and it was co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope. Their screenplay seems content in providing us with a classy buddy comedy, ready to use class signifiers (Philomena wants to watch Big Momma’s House!) to reveal Sixsmith’s cynicism and find room for some entirely conventional character development. Judi Dench charms in the title role, and Coogan (who once slummed for Hollywood roles in drek like Around the World in 80 Days) has really grown into his career as a middle-aged character actor. While it’s not fair to criticize Philomena for not being a different kind of film, it’s also difficult not to be disappointed by Frears’ soft treatment of a subject with so much juicy story material.
Philomena had it’s North American premiere on Sunday. No Canadian release date has been announced, but it will probably be released during awards season at the end of the year.
Alan Jones writes about film for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv.