Here’s another film about a journalist, which would have made a much better premise for my recent blog on the subject so just pretend I did that.
Based on a true story, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is an adviser shafted by the Labour government (he would subsequently advise on the excellent The Thick of It) who returns to journalism by pursuing a human interest story – that of an Irish woman trying to track down her son who had been taken from her by the Catholic church in 1955, a woman called Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) who now lives in St Albans, the nation’s true capital.
Philomena is an interesting and watchable drama, thanks to the script written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope – it raises questions about journalism, faith and forgiveness while remaining funny throughout. The relationship between the atheist Martin and the Catholic Philomena develops nicely, their reactions and interactions giving the film its very human tone. Steve Coogan always manages to perfectly balance comedy and tragedy, and his character has a good arc here; his motives as a journalist are consistently questioned but his affection for Philomena and his anger toward her story are clearly real.
It suffers slightly from its export-friendliness – director Stephen Frears is prone to making British movies for the American market, such as The Queen and Tamara Drewe. This isn’t in itself a problem, but the soft edges and plinky-plonky music occasionally threaten to undermine the drama.
It’s impressive, then, that such an obvious crowd-pleaser never shies away from the frankly horrific practices of the Catholic church, who in the 1950s and 1960s used thousands of young girls for slave labour whilst selling their children. The film lets us make up our own minds about how to deal with these issues, but presents a very clear picture of a profoundly backward institution. The nuns in Philomena are even more evil than the ones in American Horror Story, and those ones are possessed by demons.