The Queen director Stephen Frears’ latest offering Philomena (2013), one of a plethora of Oscar hopefuls at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, is a heartfelt and nicely poised dramatisation following the true story of Philomena Lee. Its further bolstered by two classy performances from the ever-reliable, but utterly brilliant Judi Dench as the titular heroine, and an effectively restrained turn from Steve Coogan as former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith. In 1952, Philomena was sent to a Rosecrea convent after falling pregnant. Here, she would give birth to her son, Anthony, who was cared for by the nuns while she worked off her debts.
The convent’s nuns subsequently gave away the child to an American couple, whilst Philomena would keep her son’s existence a secret for fifty years. The story finally came out when Sixsmith, a disgraced spin doctor, took up the slack and published his 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Although covering some of the same ground as Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002), the tragic events of the fifties are dealt with through a series of flashbacks, with the young Philomena played with fresh-faced charm by Sophie Kennedy Clark. Frears’ interest here is focused much more on Philomena’s relationship with Sixsmith than their quest (initially, a disconsolate Martin sees Philomena as more of a distraction).
However, as the pair fly our to the States in order to hunt for Anthony, Sixsmith begins to learn something crucial about himself. Despite being based on a true story, Frears’ Philomena works best as an efficient dramatic machine, hitting all the beats in all the right places. Screenwriters Coogan (credited) and Jeff Pope thankfully inject proceedings with plenty of humour and are also consciously careful to give Dench some of film’s best lines. In general, Philomena is a Kings Speech-style, heartwarming British crowdpleaser – even if, at times, it does feel like it has at least one eye on next year’s Academy Awards.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.