I came out thinking that Dench, Frears and Coogan had delivered some key moments of their careers in a film that has a superbly written story which makes you believe in every moment. Oh dear, I just think I shot my review in its foot.
Without doubt Philomena is a film you should see, not just to hear the truth behind the story but to become emotionally involved, to see Dench's fantastic performance, experience Frears wonderful direction as well as the excellent script from Coogan and Jeff Pope. Award contender for sure but before that this is a must for your watch list and comes Filmstalker recommended.
Philomena opens slowly, and even during some of the early scenes I was expecting something rather dull, overly sweet and a story that we've all seen time and time again in many different forms. A film that ticked all the boxes, pulled all the usual heartstrings and just at the expected moments, hitting more clichés than that paragraph did. As I've already pointed out though I was very wrong and I was surprised at how great the film turned out to be.
It does build at a considered pace and concentrates on the characters and the layers of their story, building them in a realistic and believable way. The time they are given to grow into their places in the film helps make them so strong, and it doesn't take too long into the film before they do step up above what you may have been expecting.
The film takes a little time up front to build the journalist character and his situation before taking us to the character of Philomena, and this is because his journey is also important to the audience, not only to bring us to the main character but also to represent us come the end of the film. However the film doesn't over indulge in this build up or in any others. It does feel as though just the right amount of time and focus is spent on the characters and their scenes.
I quickly felt the frustration and unhappiness of the journalist, it was easy to empathise with him and his situation, he felt real and relatable when he could so easily have been larger than life or a caricature. Through him we meet our main character Philomena, and throughout he acts as the counter to her character, our viewpoint if you will, and she captures just as much empathy and realism as Sixsmith, and it is so easy to connect with her. The situations and dialogue for Philomena as well as those that Sixsmith is pulled into are one of the main highlights of the film. They are incredibly naturally written and you can't help but raise a smile and find a warm place in your heart for this seemingly naive character.
It's that naivety that hides something fantastic about the character which also reflects the film itself for there's a lot more to Philomena than her character first suggests, and only through her exposure to the world do we gain glimpses of who she really is. Certain situations reveal that there's a ton of life experience, understanding and a surprising wise aspect to her character. These facets of her character are revealed in small comments and moments which build slowly through the film as does the storyline.
We get to know the character as the film progresses and as you feel Sixsmith is at the same time. We warm to her, begin to see through the outer surface of her character and start to see who she really is, just as Sixsmith does. This brings warmth, laughter and at times some incredibly powerful moments of sadness, poignancy and sometimes sharpened insight. Even in some offhand comments she makes about other characters, comments which might at first seem comedic, are hidden barbs at the bigoted views of seemingly open and accepting people.
She is wonderfully played by Dame Judi Dench and I can't heap enough praise on her. Yes the character is fabulously written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and I'm sure much of this comes from the original book by Martin Sixsmith and the real life character of Philomena herself, however Judi Dench brings her to life on the screen and makes her so attractable.
At times her performance is heart-breaking without having to resort to clichés or huge floods of on screen emotion, Dench portrays her with delicate care and so much belief. There are moments of her being open and accepting to anyone, talking to and taking an interest in the waiting staff at the hotel which raise a smile with the audience and are delivered with a wonderful innocence. These contrast with scenes such as the one at the salad bar where she grabs Sixsmith's arm to deliver an important moment or when she reveals the truth to her daughter, powerful and emotional moments that really do hit hard and do a great job of really drawing you to the character and her story. There's a wonderful charm to her character and a naivety that slowly gets peeled away during the second half of the film with some fantastic moments of dialogue and surprising story turns.
Judi Dench is wonderful, we all know that anyway, but here I think she's rather exceptional and while praise should go to the writing and the original story, Dench is the highlight and should be praised like no other.
Her character reflects the core of the film and I think this is where the film excels. Much like a good thriller the story develops layer after layer. This isn't by any means a thin plot with maybe a little twist on the way like so many "human interest" films we see, there's much more to it and it's delivered in a carefully thought through manner. As we think we might have a handle on the character and the story something new appears and changes our perceptions, just as the characters are experiencing in their story so are we as we watch them. As I already said this seems like more of a thriller in the way it delivers a story filled with layers and secrets, revealing a new one when the previous one is almost worn through.
It's during the early phase when you start seeing this in practice and the film that we all thought might have been light and airy adds a little bit of depth to it and sparks interest. This keeps happening to both the story and the characters, and I felt it happened just at the key points to keep me with the story and to keep me believing in the characters.
This leads me to the point where I really need to mention the work done by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope behind the camera on the script. Now I'm not sure how much of this just flew out of the original book by Martin Sixsmith and how much work they needed to do to craft it into the screenplay it has become, but whether it's more the novel, screenplay or a combination of all, they deserve a lot of praise. The excellent script manages to combine moments of real life humour with some quite dark and emotive subjects, and it manages to take the audience in and out of these places with ease, guided by the wonderfully written and performed character of Philomena. It also delivers one of the biggest kicks in the stomach I've had in a long time in film, and the way this plays out heaps more praise for the direction, writing, editing and performance.
Oh it does sound like fawning but truly I loved the way Philomena's story was told and there are some excellent choices of direction that bring something more to the film than just the standard romanticised story. Her scenes of reflection are well visualised and take a powerful and different turn when they become a flashback to a retelling of events out with her memories. It's cleverly done and works really well on screen.
By now you'll know that the story isn't just the standard romanticised, emotionally engineered, personal journey, at times the story is both emotionally harrowing and horrifying. There's also a lot more to it than Philomena's story and not just the reveal of the injustices, there's also the journey of Sixsmith himself. It's a much more subtle story so much so that you don't really feel the impact of it and what it represents until the final sequences. It would be so easy to dismiss the character and the performance of Coogan but it is important, he's the counter to Philomena and he represents us. The learning his character goes through and the divergence of the two leads' paths serves to help us understand something more about the Philomena, the terrible situation that she has been through and come to face, and a little about ourselves.
Coogan proves once again that he's a great actor and here he shows that he doesn't have to push the character performance in any way, much like he did with his role in The Look of Love. Here though he plays it even straighter and although there are the odd few moments where we see traits we might recognise from one of his more famous characters, he never lets it take over the performance and here it's much more in keeping with a real person.
There are a good number of messages and meanings through the story, some around faith and about religion, but none of these are rammed down the audience's throats. While one view could be that organised religion can be a bad thing, used in the name of the darker side of the humanity, the film also does a strong job of showing the other side, of the positives of religion and faith for the individual through the leading character. While this is an emotive and potentially divisive topic it's handled on a very personal level and from two different viewpoints of the two different leads. It's a clever and intelligent way to present it and works very well. It began some important thoughts and I found myself coming away from the film pondering the views presented and what Philomena lived through.
Philomena is a fantastic film and offers so much more than you might have expected. Judi Dench is always fantastic in every role but here there's something even more special, her performance shows a level of ease and emotional control that shows she's still got much more to offer audiences, this is undoubtedly an award winning performance for her.
It's not all down to her though and Steve Coogan needs plenty of recognition too for his role as producer, co-writer along with Jeff Pope, and his restrained performance which gives the audience the view to Philomena. He's a surprising actor and it's all too easy to confine him to his comedic roles when in fact he can deliver performances such as The Look of Love and his latest with Philomena.
Stephen Frears directs and does an excellent job of not making the film over sentimental or cheesy, striking the perfect balance between humour, emotional heartache and real life expose.
Philomena is filled with excellence from the script to the edit. It's a film that will capture your heart and fill you with warmth and love for the main character and then break it when she so naturally reveals her truth. You really feel this film mainly from the empathy for the main character, her naive and often blisteringly frank personality, the natural humour she has with others and in particular with her co-star which counters the darker and emotionally darker latter story.
I'd highly recommend the film to all. Don't be fooled by the thought of the lighter "human interest" story, this is a fantastically crafted and realised film that will engage your heart as well as your mind.