4 stars
Alan Partridge goes in to bat against Irish nuns? There's the thing about Steve Coogan (Alpha Papa), it's hard to escape his past. Yet that, despite the fact his character is still in the media, is one of Philomena's greatest achievements. It shows just how good an actor Coogan is. He also wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of a story by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith who champions the case of a woman whose son was stolen by nuns and sold overseas. His determination to reveal this act of bastardry is wonderfully balanced by Philomena's simple desire to see her son after nearly 40 years. With Judi Dench (My Week With Marilyn) in the lead role and Stephen Frears directing (The Queen / Tamara Drewe), a winning formula is complete.

For Philomena is a winner. One rash moment of human impulse left a young woman with an infant boy and banished to the care of nuns. Unbeknownst to her and the public at large, they were also doing a trade in forced adoption. Years later, the confliction between the old woman's search for her son (one of high office as it turns out) and an unwavering faith in the Church itself, gives Philomena its soul. Spanning four decades and two continents, this is a compelling blend of light humour and tugged heart strings, an inter-generational road movie wrapped around two splendid performances, a crowd pleaser anchored by a suitably heavy heart.

It's hard for any actor not to be upstaged by Dench, yet Coogan stands his own, giving one of the best performances of his career. He's everything Sixsmith probably was; jaded, cynical, concerned, outraged, caring - and all of these emotions are presented honestly and convincingly. Partridge is not to be seen. For an atheist like Sixsmith, here was a horrifying story of sanctioned cruelty. For an apologist like Philomena, it was simply the card she'd been handed. For the audience, it's an absorbing, sometimes heart-breaking story of faith and courage. Two differing viewpoints that merge toward one enthralling conclusion.


Previewed at Sony Theatrette, Sydney, on 22 October 2013

4 stars

In an inspirational tale of an ‘odd couple’, Stephen Frears’s (The Queen / High Fidelity) drama, based on the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by the ex-BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, successfully manages “to walk a line between what is funny and tragic”. How apt is this quote by one of the screenwriters? Absolutely spot-on as it turns out. The story goes that British actor/ comedian Steve Coogan, like Sixsmith, heard about the tragic plight of an Irish woman searching for her long-lost son and became enthralled by the story. She had been pining for her ‘stolen child’ for some 50 years and had lived with the guilt and shame of giving him up for adoption, albeit unwillingly.

In 1952, a very innocent and very young Philomena (initially played by Sophie Kennedy Clark – Dark Shadows and as an adult by Judi Dench – Skyfall / The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) had a one night stand, fell pregnant and ended up working in the laundry of a home for unwed mothers run by Roman Catholic nuns; her only joy was the one hour a day she was allowed to spend with her child. Meanwhile the nuns at the Roscrea Convent in Tipperary, Ireland, were scheming to sell-off the kids in their ‘care’ to Americans who could afford to adopt them. In a particularly heart-wrenching scene, Philomena witnesses her three-year-old son, Anthony, being taken away by his adoptive parents; she had not been told he had been selected for adoption so was totally unprepared for his loss. Thus, she spends the rest of her life wondering what happened to him until she eventually meets Sixsmith (Steve Coogan – The Look Of Love / Alan Partridge) and they set off on a road trip to the USA in search of Anthony.

The multi-talented Coogan co-wrote the screenplay (with Jeff Pope) and says the story is about “tolerance and understanding”, not just between the Catholic church and the young mothers it took advantage of, but also between the two central characters, who hold opposing views on religion and just about everything else. Philomena is a working-class, elderly Irish woman who sees life in a simple, but honest way. She never shunned her religious beliefs even though the nuns let her down and subjected her to a life of incomprehensible sadness; Sixsmith, on the other hand, is a middle-class, Oxford-educated intellectual who, apart from being a foreign correspondent for the BBC, was a former Director of Communications in the Blair Government. Philomena is down-to-earth, but Sixsmith is a cynic who is enraged by the Church’s hypocritical behaviour.

As referred to at the start of this review, the remarkable thing about Stephen Frears’s direction of Philomena is the light touch he has managed to bring to what is, in essence, a tragic tale of loss. He is aided in this, in no small measure, by the script (nominated for a Golden Globe award) and Coogan’s both serious and at times humorous depiction of Martin Sixsmith. Both Dench (another Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress) and Coogan deliver fine performances. Philomena may well garner Academy Award nominations in the same categories, too. If so, they would be well deserved for this is very probably the best British film of the year.


Previewed at Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney, on 4 December 2013

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Judi Dench
Steve Coogan
Mare Winningham
Sophie Kennedy Clark

Stephen Frears

Steve Coogan
Jeff Pope



98 minutes

December 26, 2013
Philomena (2013) on IMDb
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