That Dame Judi Dench sure knows how to pick her roles. (Chronicles of Riddick being ignored of course.) Dench plays the eponymous Philomena in a star vehicle supported by a wonderfully understated performance from Steve Coogan. This film is a tad overbearing at times with tragedy around every single corner. If you can imagine the worst possible outcome in every situation that will be what happens. What mostly saves the film from being unbearable is Dench and Coogan who are both heart-wrenching and inspired.
Philomena has held a secret for 50 years. She bore a child as a teenager and was then banished to a convent to atone for this sin. The child was adopted against her will and she never spoke of the incident to anyone even after she left the convent. Now 50 years later she enlists the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith to see if he can help her find the son she lost long ago.
Judi Dench is of course wonderful as the aging Irish woman who is one step back of the times. She is a devout Catholic and the contrast plays nicely off of Coogan’s intolerable cynicism as Sixsmith. The interplay between the two is the reason to watch the film. The plot is fairly heavy handed and contains all of the melodramatic elements one would expect from this type of material, but to the film’s credit it underplays most of the emotions rather than exaggerating them. Every scene between Dench and Coogan is wonderful while the rest fall flat or reek of manipulation. The tone is uneven and the emotional ride gets tiring by the end. Sadly, Dench and Coogan deserve a better script than the one they got, although Coogan’s credit as a screenwriter makes him fairly responsible for it as well as a victim.
Philomena is being marketed as a comedy which is baffling to me. There are a few laughs here and there but the story is far from a comedy. The story is depressing, but the manipulative tone belies some of the genuine emotions that come. All of this leads to a film that can’t be a comedy due to the nature of the story and is too contrived to be genuinely dramatic. The true heart of the film is the relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith. Their interplay is wonderful and a whole film could be supported of them just talking about life. Take the burden of tragedy out of the plot and I envision a non-romantic version of Before Sunset with these characters would be amazing. As it is, Philomena is a tad underwhelming.