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London Film Festival Review: Philomena


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philomenaThe film's poster may look slightly odd and the pairing of Steve Coogan with the inimitable Judi Dench may raise a few eyebrows, but Philomena is a genuine and affecting film with all the charm, wit and emotion that the true story on which it is based deserves.

Philomena follows the true story of Irish 70-something Philomena Lee who, with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), sets out to find her child who was put up for adoption by nuns in 1950s Ireland. Their search leads them to America, where the two develop an odd but charming friendship.

The film is directed by Stephen Frears (who brought us The Queen in 2006) and his directorial style – understated, wry and relaxed – allows the actors to really shine in the film. This room to act and to truly discover their characters produces two fantastic performances from Dench and Coogan. The success of this central relationship is down to the ease with which both Coogan and Dench interact: Coogan's slightly arrogant, cynical journalist bounces off Dench's outwardly simple but warm-hearted and forgiving Philomena and the pair make for some fantastic on-screen chemistry.

As the film progresses, their relationship produces many laughs and – it has to be said – quite a few tears along the way. Frears has a great ability to perform emotional hand-brake turns in a single scene, moving from intense mother/son issues to laugh-out-loud comedy in a single scene. The pair really are a delight to watch.

The script has a brilliant tension between humour and sadness and you may just mist up a little. One such scene, set in a Washington hotel room, sees Sixsmith recounting seemingly-insignificant details about Philomena's son to her: his firm handshake, how politely he said hello (or was it hi?). Dench's delight at hearing this mundane but exhilarating information is hugely affecting. Moments of discovery such as these are the stand-out sequences from a film which, on an overall level, retains a low-key tone but with an undercurrent of intense and heart-breaking emotion.

Coogan, hinting ever so slightly at Alan Partridge in his performance, not only stars in the film but has also co-produced and co-written the screenplay and his investment in a story of loss and re-discovery such as this is plain to see. The film doesn't have to try hard to set the tears going because the story's roots in real life events are so emotive.

Philomena is a fantastic, affecting and potent film which mixes comedy, tragedy and reconciliation to great effect. The film is, undoubtedly, sustained by Coogan and Dench who are one of the most delightful on-screen pairings seen this year and it will charm, devastate and delight in equal measure. Frears certainly knows how to pull at the heart-strings.

Philomena is released nationwide on 1st November

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