Philomena - DVD Review

'Together, Dench and Coogan are perfect, their chemistry instant and infectious.'

Receiving numerous nominations throughout 2013, including four at the BAFTAs and another four a couple of weeks later at the Oscars, the most prestigious award Philomena actually walked away with was from the British Academy for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adapted screenplay. A surprising win after watching the film - whilst Coogan and Pope’s screenplay is regularly strong, it’s far from flawless. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) at one point even states to Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) “I’m angry!”, the writers clearly forgetting it’s far better to show how a character is feeling through their actions than just flat out tell us.

Problems appear elsewhere in the script, particularly when concerned with some of the supporting roles. Outside of Coogan and Dench’s lead pair, it’s really quite hit and miss how well developed those involved feel; some characters inherently important to the story never become more than brief snapshots that turn up for a scene or two, removing any chance of them becoming properly developed. Others still just feel out of place: Martin’s editor Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley) constantly feels like a panto villain, there to represent the heartlessness of the media rather than function as a believable person.

Director Stephen Frears is therefore lucky in some ways that Philomena has such overwhelming strengths to compensate for these problems. Most prominent of these is the acting partnership leading the film. Dench is reliably superb, immediately crafting in Philomena a presence likeable, believable, sympathetic and quirkily original. There are clear moments of comedy throughout Philomena, and as an elderly Irish lady of staunch Catholic faith, there are times where Dench’s character could have become the butt of the joke in a misguided style reminiscent of Father Ted. It’s to the credit of Dench and Frears as director that this is never the case. Frears makes sure the film’s light moments are never there to undercut or disrespect the painfully emotional story being told.

Opposite Dench, Coogan gives his strongest straight dramatic performance to date. Martin Sixsmith isn’t always a likeable presence, especially when airing his opinions, but Coogan ensures he remains a character striving to be a force for good even if he doesn’t always go about it in the right way. Together, Dench and Coogan are perfect, their chemistry instant and infectious.

It’s clear that Coogan and Pope as writers, and Frears as director, are well aware that Philomena’s story is cinematic gold. Structurally, the narrative is expertly crafted and for the most part skillfully paced. A theme around the nature and purpose of storytelling - unsurprisingly with a focus on journalism - is present throughout, but Frears clearly knows this thread only needs to exist in the background to the compelling story he has at his disposal.

Perhaps Philomena’s biggest failing is a lingering sense that, had its handful of shortcomings been remedied, this could have been outstanding. As it is, this emerges as a very good film, anchored by two outstanding performances and an irresistible story of loss and forgiveness both heartbreaking and uplifting.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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