Before Stephen Frears began shooting Philomena he insisted his two leads, Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, watch Frank Capra's 1934 multiple Oscar winner It Happened One Night.

View Comments
Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Picture: Supplied

Philomena (M)
5 stars
Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
DIRECTOR STEPHEN FREARS
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS

Before Stephen Frears began shooting Philomena he insisted his two leads, Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, watch Frank Capra's 1934 multiple Oscar winner It Happened One Night.

At first glance this would seem a curious choice, if not one that's downright inappropriate and tasteless.

What does the wrenching real-life story an Irish nurse who spent decades searching for the son forcibly taken from her by nuns and given up for adoption have to do with a 30s screwball comedy about a dizzy runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) who, while on the road, falls in love with Clark Cable's roguish, out-of-work reporter?

But once the story gets out of first gear and Philomena (Dench) hooks up with the British journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) you grasp why Frears (The Queen), one of the canniest, most controlled directors working today, reached back over the decades to a rom-com classic for inspiration.

Instead of shovelling on the misery, as would be expected from yet another story about the abuses of the Catholic Church, Frears and his writers Coogan and Jeff Pope negotiate a path between horror and humour - between an unflinching depiction of the cruelty endured by unwed mothers during unenlightened times and celebration of a woman's capacity to endure and to flourish.

Indeed, in watching this oddest of couples thrown together in a search for Philomena's long-lost son - she a lover of romantic potboilers, bad movies and all-you-can-eat smorgasbords, he an Oxford- educated Russian specialist and wine snob - I laughed more heartily than during many so- called comedies released in the past and shed more genuine tears than most dramas carefully calibrated to make us reach for the tissues.

Philomena, in other words, is a wonderful example of classical storytelling. It is beautifully balanced, non-manipulative and its catharsis is as well earned (and, yes, it is a kind of romantic comedy but with evil nuns).

When the film opens Sixsmith, like Gable's Peter Wearne in It Happened One Night, is unemployed and desperate. He's been dismissed from a high-level communications role with the Tony Blair government and anxious to kickstart his career in journalism.

However, what Martin isn't about to do is take on the story of an elderly woman searching for the son whom the nuns in a convent in Roscrea in County Tipperary in the early 1950s forced to give up for adoption. "I don't do human interest stories," he sneers to Philomena's daughter when she approaches him at a swanky cocktail party.

However, after meeting Philomena and being persuaded to visit the convent-cum-workhouse where the unwed youngster had given birth Martin sniffs out a good story, another woeful tale of mistreatment and corruption by the Church, which at this time was coming under assault for its failure to act on sexual abuse.

Even though records of what happened to the children were destroyed in a fire (but not the convent, observes the increasingly aggravated Sixsmith), Martin is commissioned to take Philomena to the US, where they learn the boy was taken.

The story is only getting under way at this point. However, I don't want to reveal any more because this is one of those movies in which the less you know the more you will enjoy it because the mind-boggling twists and turns are not shallow, showy storytelling tricks but go to the very heart of the movie's meaning.

The film's other journey involves the two protagonists crossing a cultural divide as wide as Philomena's beautiful smile, with the cynical, hard-nosed journalist and hater of the Catholic Church gradually coming to appreciate the earthy intelligence of this uneducated woman who refuses to shake her fist at God.

More riveting is the struggle of Philomena to accede to Martin's pressure to tell her story (for career reasons, initially, but later for justice and for closure).

At first Philomena is driven by maternal instinct to connect with her child and to find out if he had a good life. However, as they move closer to uncovering the mystery Philomena is racked by conflicting emotions, such as the need for privacy and why the boy made no attempt to see his mother or embrace his heritage.

Again, none of this gets maudlin, melodramatic or self-important. As they move their story toward its heartbreaking conclusion Coogan and co-writer Pope work up some beautiful comic moments, beginning with Philomena constantly challenging Martin with her down-to-earth good cheer, wry observations and above-her-status use of language (her reference to gay men as "bi-curious" is a delight).

Funnyman Coogan steps up several notches as an actor - what a stunning year he's had, with What Maisie Knew, The Look of Love and the recent Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa - but Philomena belongs to the great Dench, who has never been more alive on the screen or more nuanced. Her Philomena is one of the year's most complex, memorable characters.

Indeed, Dench so thoroughly inhabits Philomena and infuses her with such dignity and good humour in the face of misery that she becomes a symbol of motherhood for the ages, an ordinary woman elevated by the power of love.

Philomena belongs to the great Dench, who has never been more alive on the screen or more nuanced.