The Magdalene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) brilliantly exposed the inhumanity of the Catholic Church in their treatment of women. Philomena follows the same theme with a more contemporary story that once again highlights the inhumanity of that institution. Based on Martin Sixsmith’s book, it tells the tale of how he stumbles across Philomena Lee looking for her ‘lost’ son, after been ousted as a New Labour spin doctor. I haven’t read the book but it is clear that Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote and produced the film, has not tried to wholly inhabit Sixsmith’s character as Coogan’s persona (how he appears in film and TV programmes) is present throughout. This is evident in the first scene where he mistakes his doctor’s description of his ‘outstanding’ (sounds like an Ofsted judgement) ‘stool’ as as suggesting ‘high quality’ rather than ‘missing’.
Coogan’s humour, I am told, is at odds with the book and so adds to the entertainment. It also reminds us that Coogan is a high profile campaigner for proper press regulation (which is looking increasingly unlikely) and he memorably ripped into an ex-News of the World scumbag here. I’d be interested in what Sixsmith made of his portrayal as it isn’t flattering, the media elite’s snobbery is evident though the journalist is certainly celebrated in his determination to complete his investigation; this Guardian interview doesn’t touch upon it.
Sailing effortless, and movingly, through the narrative is Judi Dench’s Philomena who portrays a betrayed and ordinary woman as having great dignity in the face of her treatment. This contrasts with Coogan’s (he’s a lapsed Catholic) outrage at the Church; I know who’s side I was on. This is likely to be one of my favourite films of the year.