Philomena (London Film Festival 2013)
The nonplussed response to The Look of Love was partly from why Steve Coogan wanted to portray Paul Raymond, a real life figure less cuddly than his Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. Both films, combined with Michael Winterbottom’s hand-held direction, only played to niche crowds. Well, Philomena is yet another biopic, except it’s far more of a crowdpleaser – perhaps cynically so.
I was unconvinced by Coogan’s explanation as to why he wanted to make The Look of Love, but Philomena is obvious: guaranteed BAFTA nominations. If collaborating with Stephen Frears and Judi Dench isn’t enough, the story is tearjerker inspired by The Lost Child of Philomena Lee : A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search – a non-fiction book by Martin Sixsmith.
Coogan, who co-writes Philomena with Jeff Pope, takes upon the role of Martin. As a grumpy, sardonic journalist, Martin is a watchable lead through Coogan’s comfortable timing. Martin’s pessimism is matched in true odd couple fashion with Philomena Lee (Dench), an Irish nun who decades earlier was forced to give up her three-year-old son. At the time, the Catholic Church punished Philomena for breaking her chastity vows, and sold the child, along with many others, to Americans. Martin senses a human-interest story (despite insisting, “I don’t do human-interest stories!”) and, in a mutually beneficial agreement, the pair set off to find her missing son.
Philomena is a perfunctory in how it encompasses religion and forgiveness, although the numerous flashbacks stack up in an artificial manner – eventually with a character arc protruding through the screen. The screenplay contains more attempted comedy than one might expect, especially during the most dramatic moments: overegged scene s are signalled as self-important through the absence of any jokes.
I’m a massive fan of Coogan’s comedic talents, not just Alan Partridge, so was dismayed by how his humour is pulled back in, with lines seemingly aimed at middle-aged parents who enjoy the cinema of Sunday afternoons. He’s mostly a foil for Philomena, whose emotional distress would be more moving were it not for the manipulative strings hanging in the corner of the frame; Dench’s face freezes on multiple occasions, poised, tears at the ready, perfecting the three-second clip shown at award ceremonies. She’s looking for her son, but she’s also looking for an award.
Philomena is the London Film Festival’s American Express Gala screening 2013. More information can be found here.
98 mins approx