The Well-Made British Picture – modest in scope, but displaying a sound, indeed wholly admirable adherence to the virtues of a well-tempered script and a nuanced set of performances – has become a definable property in recent times, not to mention a reliable staple of the pre-Christmas awards rush. Stephen Frears’ new true-life tale Philomena – every inch the Well-Made British Picture – initially appears to be moving in similar circles to this director’s 2006 success The Queen, opening with a brisk thumbnail sketch of a crestfallen power player.
This is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote with Jeff Pope), recently fired from his job as a New Labour spin doctor and now slumping through Knightsbridge dinner parties as a jobbing freelance writer, so depressed that he’s even considering penning a book on Russian history. On the other side of London – yet, somehow, worlds away – there exists the Irish Catholic Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), working her way through her own, rather more graspable trauma: the memory of having her young son sold off by the nuns at the Magdalene laundry she was assigned to as a teenager.
Worlds will collide – yet it’s an early, promising sign that they do so in ways specific and idiosyncratic enough to suggest this collision might actually have happened. The two lead characters first meet at a Harvester (“it’s mum’s favourite place”), where Philomena spills the beans over the croutons and bacon bits, and Sixsmith’s professional instincts, if not his sympathies, are sufficiently engaged to propose they pursue the lost boy together; when they finally hit the road, Philomena turns up with a handbag full of Custard Creams and Tunes.
The film, fine-tuned for its inevitable matinee outings, forms an attempt to have its cake (or biscuit selection) and swallow it whole. In an early scene, Sixsmith seeks to impress his worldliness upon Philomena’s caterer daughter by sharing his belief that human interest stories are targeted at the weak-minded; Frears, Coogan and Pope then offer us one more or less straight, with occasional caveats.
The road trip Philomena winds up taking may lead to the heart of America’s political scene, but it bears traces of something a little more parochial: Coogan’s opposites-attract collaboration with Rob Brydon on TV’s The Trip. Sixsmith is as cynical as one would maybe expect a New Labour spindoctor to be, and these scenes will contrast his snobbery and jadedness – as established by regular telephone calls to his editor, claiming he could bash out this story to a predetermined template – with his travelling companion’s simpler faith.
And what extraordinary faith Philomena Lee displays: in the religion that looks to have taken at least as much from her as it has given back; in the idea her son might still be out there, and in need of a mother’s love; even in the suggestion that the Martin Lawrence-starrer Big Momma’s House will be the funniest thing she’s likely to see while in America. (I fear Philomena will be directly responsible for an upswing in Big Momma DVD sales among the 55-75 demographic. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a Sixsmith: hold onto those receipts, people.)
Philomena works because, on some semi-profound level, the film believes, too: in stories, and their continued ability to engage, surprise and otherwise touch us. It believes enough to usher us assuredly past the mid-film development that apparently closes down the possibility of an obvious happy ending; and, like all feelgood fables worth their weight in honey, it believes in the possibility that even a grinch of Martin Sixsmith’s standing might be, if not redeemed, then at least somehow challenged or shaken, by the gleam in a nice old lady’s eye.
Some of the knowingness and self-referentiality – ported across from Coogan’s comedy endeavours – is pared back come the final reel to more clearly reveal this belief, and the emotions attached to it. Yet Philomena benefits at almost every turn from an almost ideal division of labour: allowing Coogan to push for the head and the funny bone in reaction shots that mark him, this once, as unmistakably the straight man, while his co-star – on her now-customary fine form – shores up the heart, cockles and tearducts. It is, undeniably, well-made.
(MovieMail, October 2013)
Philomena screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.