Philomena **** (out of five)
Steve Coogan concludes his Year of Living Brilliantly with Philomena, a controlled, precise, moving and very funny film that he co-wrote and co-stars in, playing it relatively straight and holding his own against none other than Dame Judi Dench, who, graciously, brings her most A of A Games and holds her own against him.
Coogan is a phenomenon, or at least his work has conspired to congeal around him in order to make him appear so. His 2013 has seen him as a big-screen Alan Partridge in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, one of the two funniest films of the year, which he also co-wrote and which was, in Britain at least, a huge hit, and being absolutely brilliant in a straight dramatic role in What Maisie Knew, as a father separating from his small family (and stealing scenes right out from under Julianne Moore). And now this, Philomena, which will come to define him as an artist for the next phase of his career.
What a career! Besides being a massive comedy star in Britain, with multiple television incarnations of Alan Partridge shows, innumerable appearances, a stand-up career, radio and all manner of such success, Coogan has already had a spectacular film run, the highlight package probably being his films for Michael Winterbottom – 24 Hour Party People, The Trip, The Look of Love and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – but which also includes stand-out appearances in the Night at the Museum films, Phileas Fogg in the big-budget remake of Around The World in Eighty Days, Marie Antoinette, Hot Fuzz, Hamlet 2, In the Loop, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, The Other Guys, Our Idiot Brother, Ruby Sparks, Despicable Me 2 and, very memorably, Tropic Thunder.
But Philomena is something very special, not least of which is because Coogan co-wrote the superb, faultless screenplay with Jeff Pope from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (whom Coogan plays in the film) but also because Coogan’s performance in this excellent film is absolutely terrific. I can’t imagine any other actor getting the balance of comedy, drama, pathos and anger as absolutely correct as Coogan does here.
The real Sixsmith helped a woman named Philomena Lee (Dench, perfect) search for the son taken from her by Magdalene Sisters fifty years previously, and Coogan uses the story to look at faith, religion, family, friendship and love with care, delicacy, and great and constant humour. The jokes never upset the drama and the drama is never laid on. Everything comes out of character, and the two central characters are impeccably drawn.
The only fault lines in the film occur as constructed by director Stephen Frears with his cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, and his composer, Alexandre Desplat: some of the shots, and some of the music, do actually tip over into a sentimentality that is not at all present in the writing or the performances. But the underlying script, and those committed and heartfelt performances, are so strong, that golden hour in the frame and strings on the soundtrack don’t pull them undone. This is a wonderful, fully realised movie, small in scale but grand in scope and theme. Don’t miss it.