Jurassic Park! Ditching the larks, Coogan shines in the dark

Stephen frears is something of a British institution. Unlike his peers, such as Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, he’s much more difficult to pigeon-hole. From Gumshoe, his hard boiled detective debut starring Albert Finney, through My Beautiful Laundrette (a gay romance set amongst racial tensions) and his Oscar-bagging adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons to American thrillers such as The Grifters and comedies such as High Fidelity, biographical dramas like The Queen or The Deal,  there’s little that links all these films beyond the man himself. Never one to generate his own material and unlikely to ever be accused of being an auteur, a Stephen Frears film has, aside from his own left-leaning politics, only one prerequisite: a good story – and this real-life tale is certainly that.

A young lady (Martin) has a chance meeting with Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a recently disgraced Labour Party advisor, which leads to an extraordinary journey. Looking to return to journalism, an initially sceptical Sixsmith agrees to meet with Philomena (Dench), the young lady’s Irish mother, to write about the woman’s desire to be reunited with her long-lost son. We see in flashback that she was disowned by her family and put into ‘care’ at a convent for unmarried mothers where her child was born. And then, after allowing her only one hour of contact a day, her child was forcibly taken from her and adopted.

Among a roster of crimes – the totality of which amount to a serious indictment of the ‘Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary’ – the names and whereabouts of the adoptive parents (from whom the church made upwards of £1000 per child) were withheld from the distressed mothers. Slowly Sixsmith’s Oxford-educated, quick-witted arrogance is replaced by a quiet respect, as he becomes more deeply embroiled in the mystery surrounding this woman’s son.

For a film so plot-driven, it is surprisingly the performances that carry us along. Coogan, who also co-wrote the script, is practically reprising his melancholy media-arsehole persona from Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip. He does a brilliant job of what is essentially reacting to Dench’s nuanced powerhouse. Dame Judi’s blue/grey peepers are as soulful as ever and there’s few actresses who can convey a veritable ocean of emotion by doing little more than breathing. However, here she’s required to not only grapple with a Tipperary accent (conjuring memories of her weaker work in The Shipping News) but also walk a thin line between showing us the naive and uninformed Philomena, while at the same time bringing dignity and humour to the character. There are moments when she fails to avoid flickers of condescension, faltering in both this and the accent, but overall, she pulls off the challenge with aplomb.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the horrors endured and the personal grief on display, the contrast between the two characters is expertly mined for humour. It is done in a way that simply observes their behaviours, carefully emphasising the unlikelihood of their pairing. He is  a borderline-atheist scholar with a penchant for Russian history and she’s a devout catholic who reads Mills & Boon novels, but their meeting teaches them as much about themselves as each other. As nauseatingly neat as that might sound, the tone of the film and the sincerity of Coogan and Dench’s performances allow this to feel truthful without undermining the joy or sadness felt by their respective characters. Some may baulk at the tone, but does every drama need to pack a punch as devastating as a Steve McQueen or a Ken Loach in order to ultimately hit home? Mr Frears apparently thinks not. I’m inclined to agree.