Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.29.13
Some of them sneak up on us.
At first blush, Philomena seems the sort of mildly detached, urbane dramedy that the Brits deliver so well: a “two-hander” that places a prim, proper and deeply spiritual old woman in a car with a cynical younger journalist. It’s a road trip, a genre with which we’re quite familiar: These two disparate characters will get to know each other, achieving mutual respect and trust as the journey continues. Cue the inevitable happy conclusion.
Except that Philomena isn’t like that at all.
Director Stephen Frears’ new film is an acting showcase for star Judi Dench, who delivers yet another mesmerizing performance. Co-star Steve Coogan is a revelation in a dramatic role: a quite impressive change of pace for a confrontational British comic actor who has been nothing short of irritating in gawdawful projects such as Hamlet 2 and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.
They’re marvelous together, displaying an oil-and-vinegar dynamic that leaves us wondering, as the story proceeds, which one will get fed up first, and tell the other to sod off. Now, that's dramatic tension.
And, oh my goodness, the story. Shattering, unforgettable, deeply moving and laced with surprises, right up to the final scenes that deliver a truly unexpected — and frankly heart-stopping — portrait of vicious, unrepentant evil.
If that didn’t pique your curiosity, nothing will.
Coogan doesn’t merely play a featured acting role; he also co-produced and co-wrote (with Jeff Pope) the film, having been deeply touched by the book on which this factual story is based: Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Up to this moment, Coogan’s writing oeuvre has been similarly comic, often of the shrieking variety; with Pope’s help, he nonetheless delivers a sensitive, restrained and genuinely touching script.
Clearly, Coogan recognized that he need not oversell the material with florid dialogue or acting histrionics; the story’s core facts deliver their own emotional wallop. Besides which, Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and many others) is too accomplished a director to allow that sort of nonsense. He guided Helen Mirren to an Academy Award; he may well have done the same for Dench here.