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Philomena - Film Review

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by Richard Leathem (subscribe)
Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published December 16th 2013
Get your hankies out
Director: Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, My Beautiful Laundrette)
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Clearly Steve Coogan has been wasting his talents on comedy all these years. Recent turns in more dramatic fare like The Trip, What Maisie Knew and The Look of Love have shown him to be a dab hand at serious acting. In Philomena, not only does he give easily the best performance of his career, he actually co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film.

The film's central talking point however is Judi Dench, who gives a wonderfully nuanced interpretation of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who has suffered in silence for 50 years at having her toddler son taken away from her. At film's start she has decided to embark on a search to find him, starting at the convent where she was confined after falling pregnant out of wedlock, and from where she and her son were separated.

Coogan plays an initially reluctant journalist who assists Philomena in her search, ostensibly to advance his writing career. The evolution of the relationship between the two opposites is as much a focus of the film as Philomena's heartbreaking search for her long lost son.

While the film will indeed send sales of tissues through the roof, there is also much humour, from Sixsmith's dry and aloof observations to Philomena's blissful intent to chat to almost any random she meets on her way.

As you can imagine, the strict Catholic nuns at the Convent don't fare well in this tale - if you've seen the Magdalene Sisters, you'll know what to expect. Many a cruel turn has been doled out in the name of unwavering faith to the lord, and the sisters of Roscrea Convent are grand examples of this.

The film is effectively structured, with flashbacks from the past steadily leading up to big dramatic moments, while the events of the present bring an even greater emotional weight, whether it be in shatteringly quiet scenes or one of the film's wrenching bombshells.

Stephen Frears has always been a great director of actors, especially women. Like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in The Grifters and Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, here he provides Judi Dench with what could be the crowning jewel in a distinguished career.

This is a remarkable, true story that deserves to be seen, and it's been brought to the screen with great skill and care. Get your hankies out and be prepared to use them liberally.

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Why? One of the year's most moving films
Where: At selected cinemas
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