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Irish misery done right

OUT NOW! Judi Dench shines in the titular role in the powerful, redemptive tale of PHILOMENA.

Philomena hits Berlin screens on February 27.

At first glance, Philomena‘s story is not exactly ambitious in cinematic terms: half a century of half-lies prompts an elderly Irish mother to confront the brutally enforced renunciation of her illegitimate son in an convent-run institution for shamed girls. She finally confides in her (legitimate) daughter and together, they engage the services of a disgraced journalist on a break from work as a New Labour spin-doctor (Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, on whose real-life reportage the film is based). 

Responding to her distress with the liberated directness lacking from from her life for many years, Judi Dench plays the titular subject with trademark deprecation and humour, from the opening shot of a thoughtful lady sitting in a church through a transatlantic odyssey of pain and frustration to a moment of great forgiveness. Director Stephen Frears makes the most of a surprisingly restrained screenplay from Coogan that sets up Philomena’s warmth as a match for Sixsmith’s jaded professionalism, carefully apposing guilelessness and professional hunger, faith and lack of it, warmth and distance.

Their search for Philomena’s son could easily have shifted gear into a vapid trip down the yellow brick road of airport paperbacks to which Philomena is so attached, or worse still, been translated into grand statements of moral and emotional growth. It stands instead as a classic Frears’ tale of sentimental education, driven by plot and performance, not intrusive formal choices. That’s a tough call, by any standards and resoundingly answered here.

Philomena | Directed by Stephen Frears (USA 2013) with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Starts February 27

Originally published in issue #125, March 2014.