Be prepared for this film to make you very angry – not because it is faulty in any way, but because the true story it’s based on, and the way central character Philomena Lee is treated (by the Catholic church, shock, horror), is ghastly, inhumane, and sadly perhaps all too common for girls in her situation at the time concerned – as an effective prisoner in a convent in Ireland forced to watch as her child is given away to a wealthy family for adoption against her will. The film catches up with Philomena (Judi Dench) as an old woman in the present day who has been searching for her son her whole life, when a daughter from a later relationship introduces her to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan – who co-wrote the screenplay along with Jeff Pope, adapting the story from Sixsmith’s novel ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’), a journalist recently made redundant and who, being at a loose end, decides to investigate the case for Philomena and to write an article about the experience for publication.
Here, mixed in with the relation of real events, we find the traditional story arc of Sixsmith from jaded snoot only really interested in getting something into print, to the emotionally involved fighter in Philomena’s corner, and Coogan successfully manages the balancing act of introducing some ameliorating comedy and lightheartedness to the tough storyline. Dench’s Irish accent is one moment spot on, the next wavering, and then it’ll disappear completely, but vocal misgivings aside both leads give very good performances with a script that works overall, is well directed by Stephen Frears (‘Dangerous Liaisons’ 88, ‘High Fidelity’ 00, ‘The Queen’ 06) and a story that is sure to leave its mark on the audience. See ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ (10) for an even more brutal and heart wrenching tale on similar themes, and also the original ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (92) with Harvey Keitel for a similar contrast between the victim and the sympathiser.