From Chika Anadu’s great B For Boy to Anne Fontaine’s risible Adore motherhood proved to be the focus of a number of films in this year’s London Film Festival. Another notable connecting thread in this year’s fest was the resurgence of the buddy-buddy road movie in various guises, an aspect of works as diverse as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Arthur Landon’s Side By Side and Pawel Pawlikowski’s prize-winning Ida.
Stephen Frears’s latest, Philomena, combines both elements, focusing on the search of an Irish Catholic woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), for the son she was forced to give up for adoption as an unwed teenager fifty years before. Alas, for all the acclaim that the film’s receiving, and for all that it’s inspired by emotive true events, Frears’s movie struck me as one of the more bogus and disappointing of the Festival’s major offerings.
Philomena’s quest to discover her son’s fate leads her from rural Ireland (where she’s meeting a wall of silence from religious authorities) to Washington D.C., in the company of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the ex-BBC journo down on his luck after an unfortunate leaked comment, who becomes interested in Philomena’s story despite his initial disdain for “human interest” journalism. Adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope from Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film makes Philomena and Sixsmith’s double-act the focus, with the characters’ contrasting personalities – he Oxbridge, cynical, bolshie, atheist; she warm, curious, commonsensical, and, despite her experiences, still devoutly Catholic – played for plentiful odd couple comedy. The film also works out an irresistible parallel between the conservatism of fifties Ireland and eighties America and its effects on mother and son.
It’s a compelling story, no doubt, but one that sadly flounders due to the movie’s recourse to spelling-it-out obviousness at every single stage. With Philomena Frears has fashioned the kind of film in which everything is on the surface, every emotional beat emphasized in the King’s Speech manner. My feelings of foreboding about the director’s approach set in early, in a poor and painfully exposition-heavy opening sequence that clumsily sketches out Sixsmith’s past via TV news footage. And they were confirmed by the overwrought flashbacks showing Philomena’s parturition (“The pain is her punishment!” hisses one of the nasty nuns in a classic camp moment) and separation from her son. An example of Frears’s technique here: an early scene presents Sixsmith leaving a Christmas service as he tells his wife “I don’t believe in God” (information that you might think she’d already know). It’s followed immediately by a scene of Philomena reverently lighting a candle in church. Yes, the movie is really that crude and clunky in establishing its protagonists and their contrasting belief systems.
With weakly-drawn supporting characters disappearing as soon as they’ve served their plot function, Philomena is pretty much the Dench ‘n’ Coogan Show throughout and your response to it will doubtless depend on how delightful you deem their double act to be. Personally. I found myself resisting it. The fault, for me, lies mostly in Coogan and Pope’s script which, from an early “stool” gag onwards, too often opts for quipping over emotional insight and milks Philomena and Sixsmith’s interaction for crowd-pleasing comedy. It’s meant to be hilarious (and certainly a lot of viewers seemed to find it so) when Philomena pops out words like “bi-curious” and “clitoris” or alleges that homosexuality can be determined by a penchant for dungarees. At times, indeed, the film comes dangerously close to being a variant on The Trip with Dench replacing Rob Brydon. And when, in a religion-themed barney, Philomena tells Sixsmith that God would likely think the journalist “a feckin’ eejit” it’s the sorry spirit of Mrs. Brown’s Boys that’s looming large. It’s as if Frears, Coogan and Pope were screeching at the viewer: “You might have thought the subject matter was grim, but don’t worry. Look how funny we’re making this!"
Though the inadequate script does precisely nothing to give us a sense of Philomena’s life between the separation from her son and her present-day quest for him Dench, consummate actress that she is, brings some believable shadings to her characterisation, even when Coogan and Pope have Philomena twittering adorably about free transatlantic aeroplane drinks or the size of American buffet breakfasts. Alas, Coogan, who I’ve admired in films including Happy Endings and What Maisie Knew, is a singularly unappealing presence here, and by the time his Sixsmith is facing off with the nun responsible for Philomena’s tragedy (Barbara Jefford, playing as grim-faced a battle-axe as she did in The Deep Blue Sea) I found myself errantly hoping that the woman would rise from her wheelchair and smack him - such is the transparency and obviousness of the film’s Catholicism critique.
Frears certainly moves the movie along at a clip, but there’s a price to be paid for the film’s paciness: the whole thing feels superficial and just doesn’t go deep enough for the pain of parent/child separation that it’s meant to be exploring to really resonate. As a result Philomena has the quick-fix sketchiness of journalism or sitcom but gets nowhere near the richness of art. And as for that poster... Well, feck.
Philomena is on general UK release from 1 November.