Steve Coogan and Judi Dench might not immediately jump out to most viewers as an obvious big screen dream team, but director Stephen Frears somehow saw a peanut butter and chocolate combination in the two legendary Brits and brought them together for a bittersweet dramedy (what else?) called Philomena. Mixing remorseful tragedy for Dench and sardonic a-hole comedy for Coogan, the film is an interesting combination and works fairly well. Sure, it’s not perfect. But really, what else could you expect from a clash of screen personalities this unexpected and diametrically opposed? Hit the jump for all the diddy-details.
While the overall tone is comedic, the subject matter is anything but. It’s based in a disturbing chapter of recent Irish history in involving the Catholic Church and teenage mothers. In the 1950s, the shame surrounding teenage pregnancy in Ireland was so intense that it was just assumed you would be banned from your house if you ever came home with a baby in your belly. The church offered to take these girls in, but forced them into work detail for years and auctioned off their children to overseas foster parents for vast sums of money that were never shared with the mothers. Oh, that wacky church.
Stephen Frears’ film is based on a true story about one of those young women churned out by the church. Judi Dench stars as the titular Philomena, who never spoke of what happened to her or her child until his 50th birthday, when all the emotions came flooding back. At the same time, Steve Coogan is bumbling around as a failed journalist who has been reduced to writing human interest stories for the weekend paper (the horror!). Through a series of strange circumstances, the two meet and Coogan decides to write a story about her. He plans to take Dench to America to meet the son she’s never known. And of course, along the way a fragile bond will be born between the two conflicting personalities. Awwwwww…
The film sounds sickly sweet, but never devolves into tiresome melodrama. That can be attributed to the central creative team of Coogan and Frears. Coogan offered up scripting services as well taking the lead role and transformed his character into one of the charming, broken, and socially irredeemable jerks that he’s spent a career perfecting. For much of the first act, he’s a pretty reprehensible character openly using Dench’s character for his own career without caring for her as a person. Coogan has a way of playing someone like that which never cheapens their dickishness, yet also let’s you see the damage deep inside that lead to that awful behavior. Plus, he’s hilarious without everever losing credibility for a laugh and ending up with a fully rounded human being rather than a funny sketch character.
Frears shoots the film straight like a drama, milking the tragedy of the backstory for all it’s worth and never underscoring the comedy visually. It’s the right approach. With Coogan and Dench in charge of finding laughs in their oil and water character combo, nothing ever looks like comedy. It’s all behavioral and natural and Frears know enough to play for that and shoot his film as if there weren’t any laughs at all. The emotional impact of story stings and the comedy sings. And then of course there’s Judi Dench in what could be her final performance. She essentially plays an old bitty of the kind she’s avoided until now. Of course with Dench being Dench, there’s incredible dignity to her portrayal of a somewhat daft and certainly sheltered woman. There would be far worse ways for Dench to retire than with the back-to-back combo of Philomena and Skyfall and it’s safe to say she picked those projects for that very reason.
Dench is underrated as a comedian and Coogan is underrated as an actor, so they are ideal pair here. When they bicker about trashy romance novels or whether or not to watch Big Mama’s House 2, it’s impossible not to chuckle. When the inevitable harsh truths at the end of their American road trip pop up, none of the tear-jerking is undermined by having a comedian at the center. It’s not a perfect movie, still feeling somewhat corny at times and playing so small that it might have been better suited for televisions than cinemas. However, all of those issues just come down to personal taste and the limitations of the subject matter (there’s no sense in shooting a character piece like a blockbuster unless you won’t to confuse the audience, right?) and are hardly movie killers. It’s a very sweet and sincere piece of work that fills out Frears’ catalogue nicely, offers Coogan the more serious work he’s craved as an actor and writer for years, and provides a pleasant swansong for Dench’s remarkable career. I suppose that’s really all we could have asked for out of Philomena. There’s no sense in expecting it to be an Alan Partridge movie with an Oscar-winner and that flick is still coming to us at some point this year anyways (well, minus the Oscar-winner anyways).
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