The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman seeking out any information on the child she gave up for adoption whilst being in the care of a catholic convent in the 1950s. She reaches out to Martin Sixsmith, a real life spin doctor and journalist, who then takes her on a (fictionalised1) journey across the US in search of her long lost son. So, does it deserve to be on one of the best Oscar nomination list of recent times?
The first thing to say is that the central storyline is both fascinating and well served by an excellent screenplay. Though the narrative is simple enough, a woman on road trip searching for her son, the film also manages deal with some complex issues without getting bogged down. The narrative's main focus, and main strength, is the two main characters and the interplay between the them. The diametric nature of the relationship seems to be the source of so both tension and most the humour film's humour. Martin (Steve Coogan), is a misanthropic, lapsed catholic2, world weary and “Oxbridge” educated journalist. Opposite him is Philomena (Judi Dench), a naive, optimistic, devoutly catholic older Irish lady.
The performances are similarly contrastive. Dench, as expected inhabits a completely different human being (very different from, say, M) whilst, conversely, Coogan is again playing a version of himself (though this is no way a bad thing). Though we view this story from Martin's perspective the film is about Philomena and it would have been very easy to make her a caricature of an elderly and out of touch Irish mammy. And whilst there are times where she does conform to this stereotype, thanks to a combination an excellent script and a perfectly crafted performance by Dench, she is made a real person with edges and depth. On the one hand she has a love of poorly written romance novels and doesn't seem to realise that “Oxbridge” isn't real university and on the other, contrary to expectations, she is willing to talk about how much she enjoyed her first sexual encounter and is completely at unphased by revelations that her son is a “gay homosexual”. Martin is essentially there, both as a character and a journalist, to ask questions and move the plot on to the next part of their journey. Coogan seems perfectly comfortable in this role and does manage to hold his own next to Dench, which is no mean feat. Coogan, who as well as playing Martin also co wrote the screenplay, has stated that this film was a way to vent his personal issues with the Vatican and Martin is his main tool for achieving this goal.
The difference between the two is from where the essence of the film can be found. It's of note that Philomena has suffered the very serious trauma of having her child taken from her but still has a positive outlook in which everyone one she meets is “one in a million” whilst Martin is a man of privilege, whose greatest trauma is losing his job, remains, throughout the film, a essentially misanthropic. Some of the bickering in the film is about the pair's competing theological ideas with Philomena's faith clashing with Martin's affirmed atheism. This boils over in the film's finale as Martin sharply chastises the representatives of the institution that ruined Philomena's life whilst she chooses to forgive them. I think this is the essence of the film. We are offered two competing ways to deal with a horrific transgression, one of anger one of forgiveness and we have two essentially good characters representing each choice. The film does well not to provide an easy answer as to who is right (though we are told that forgiveness is not necessarily the easy option).
The not so Good
As for the negatives; much like Frears' previous Oscar nominated offering, The Queen, the film perhaps suffers a little from the conventional, even televisual, direction. Further to that, in part because of the directorial style, and in part because of Coogan playing the role of an investigative journalist, the film at times felt like a TV documentary and it often requires Dench's performance to drag us back into the story. Having said that, Frears still seems like a competent hand at the helm and perhaps giving it to a more experimental director might have distracted away from the essence of this story.
Though it's direction lacks some of the flare of technical prowess of other films on this years nomination list, Philomena is so well written and so well acted that this one minor floor is easily put aside and just enjoy joining Martin and Philomena on their journey. As you'd expect, a major highlight is Dench's portrayal a woman who, despite having the one thing she loved the most wrenched from her, still manages to summon the strength to forgive. In the end I think it is Dench who makes this film a viable for the big screen. However, it is also very effective story telling and success of the film comes from its portrayal of two competing world views, Philomena's faith and willingness to forgive and Martin's righteous indignation and it is this makes the film a more than worthy Best Motion Picture nominee.
1Although Philomemna's trauma is very much rooted in reality, she never actually went to the states
2A contrivance for the film. Sixsmith is apparently a devout catholic