The highlight of Stephen Frear’s new feature Philomena is its reframing of the odd-couple dynamic.
This British film is an adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 investigative book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee and perhaps the fact that it is based on real life is a big reason why this unlikely duo works so well. Steve Coogan trades his usual cringe comedy for a much more understated dramatic role. He plays Maxwell Sixsmith, an agnostic Oxford educated Labour Party advisor who has recently lost his job in highly publicised disgrace. He is the kind of man who is always sure he is the smartest person in the room, which doesn’t sit well with unemployment. Philomena Lee, on the hand, lives a simple life as a retired Catholic nurse. She could have been portrayed as a foolish old lady, however Judi Dench, to her credit, brings both vitality and dignity to Philomena’s naivety. This unlikely duo come together to find the answers to what happened to Philomena’s son, who was taken from her almost 50 years ago. Flashbacks to the 1950s inform us that a pregnant teenage Philomena was forced into virtual slavery at a convent after being rejected by her Catholic family. After three years, Philomena’s beloved son is sold by the church to an American couple for adoption. She is consistently stonewalled by the nuns as to his whereabouts until Martin gets involved. Looking for some direction, he takes on her quest, selling it as a ‘human interest’ story to a newspaper. Having no intention of letting manners get in his way, Martin pushes until he begins to get answers which eventually lead them to travel to America together to find the truth. Philomena borrows from many genres. A melodrama, as we are transported back to a 1950s convent of evil nuns and stolen children, a buddycop adventure, as Martin and Philomena hunt down clues to the whereabouts of her son and a road-trip film, as they drive around the Irish and American countryside, attempting to understand each other’s widely different world views. Watching these vastly different characters, and actors, together is ultimately moving and often hilarious.