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MOVIE REVIEW: Philomena

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PHILOMENA

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Classification: 13 L

Running time: 98 minutes

RATING: ***

Some films we watch for fun, others to further educate ourselves on events that have un-ravelled throughout the course of human history, or because we fancy a touch of good old-fashioned escapism.

Then there are those that have us running the full gamut of emotions from morbid intrigue to disgust at man’s propensity for inflicting pain on his fellow beings, to sympathy, to incredulity and even the occasional moment of unexpected humour.

Philomena is just such an offering. Based on the book of the same name, it tells the true life story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman well into her seventies who embarks on a (some would say foolhardy) search for her long-lost son. The outline of the tale is one which follows Philomena’s personal journey, as she tracks her offspring all the way across the Atlantic to the US.

At her side is erstwhile BBC foreign correspondent and one-time director of communications for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office, Martin Sixsmith.

Having been uncere-moniously dismissed from his post due to a politically tinged blunder, Martin’s germinal interest in Philomena’s tragedy is spurred purely by a need to re-establish his own credibility within the journalistic realm.

Not least because the serious nature of his faux pas has effectively meant career suicide for him.

But as the narrative unfurls, his investigations lead him to the astonishing realisation that at the core of what he originally mistook for a simple “pumpkin piece” lies a pulsating flow of religious corruption, social amorality, abuse, broken lives and what effectively amounted to an illicit cross-continental trade in babies during the 1950s.

What makes this heart-breaking account all the more poignant is Philomena’s resolute determination to always believe the best of people – even those who have so brazenly and deliberately wronged her.

Ironically, it’s Martin who takes up the baton for her and her cause, despite his initial vague and wholly self-serving interest.

Dench’s understated depiction is a perfect complement to the woman she portrays: one who, essentially, is simple at heart and quite content to have led a life in the shadows, until the memory of her son that has haunted her for decades finally spurs her into action. Coogan’s somewhat cynical interpretation provides the perfect balance to his partner-in-probing’s wide-eyed naivete (despite her age), with flashes of Martin’s dry humour (though much of it is lost on Philomena) offering welcome moments of respite in the midst of this sorrowful account. It’s a story that needed telling, particularly when it emerges that the players within it (even if some were unwitting) were all very highly placed within the socio-political hierarchy.

But it’s far from an easy film to watch, so you’d best go prepared with a box of tissues. And possibly a stiff drink.

If you liked The Help (minus the quirky bits), Philomena will be to your taste.

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