VOD film review: Philomena
James R | On 12, Mar 2014
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Watch Philomena online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
“I never saw that coming in a million years!” cries Philomena (Dench), as she describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). A cheerful old lady compared to his jaded journalist, you’d never guess what she’s been through: as a young woman, she was separated from her son, Anthony, by a Catholic home – and not told where he was. So she teams up with Sixsmith to find out.
Based on a true story, Stephen Frears’ drama ticks all the boxes. Odd couple. Check. Real life. Check. Judi Dench. Check. So you might expect the result to be an overplayed piece of schmaltz: a feel-good story ready-made for awards. But Philomena remains surprisingly understated all the way through.
Frears mixes modern day investigation with home video footage with the minimum of fuss, while the eventual reveal of where Anthony is manages to dodge heavy-handed bullets thanks to Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script, which defuses every dramatic scene with a comic beat.
Judi Dench gets the best lines, talking about everything from “gay homosexuals” to Mexicans. She’s unrecognisable as the pensioner, her pointy features softened by a wig, glasses and an irrepressible optimism. Coogan also manages to transform from his usual Partridge alias, investing his disgraced spin doctor with the sadness of a lapsed Christian – after this and an equally excellent turn in What Maisie Knew, you wonder why he doesn’t act more often.
That’s the film’s secret; their contrasting double act turns what could have been a lost-and-found tale into a quiet meditation on religious faith. Instead of loud confrontations, Philomena offers a cup of tea and forgiveness. The result is a thoughtful, sweet drama that charms with sentiment without making you choke. Bet you didn’t see that coming in a million years.