There really is no role that Judi Dench can’t pull off with a dignified air of subtle brilliance. In her latest movie, Robert Frears’ Philomena, she plays an Irish woman trying to track down the long lost son taken from her by nuns as a teenager. The story is heart wrenching and often painful to watch, intensified by the knowledge that the film is based on a true story, documented by journalist and former spin doctor Martin Sixsmith back in 2009. The wiry and cynical media man is played superbly by Steve Coogan, acting as the perfect offset to Philomena’s more whimsical and old fashioned character.
Although the story is a personal and very specific one, a “human interest story” for “weak minded, ignorant people” as the pretentious Sixsmith says, the film encompasses some vast and controversial issues. Interestingly, the corrupt Catholic establishment which subjugated Philomena and sold her child to an American couple isn’t simply written off as evil. It goes head to head with the modern, consumer focused society of backstabbing officials and petty politics represented by Sixsmith. Even towards the end it isn’t clear who the winner is. Frears tackles these big issues of religious beliefs and media morality with tact and ensures they don’t detract from the story of Philomena herself.
Dench must be highly commended for playing such a difficult role; Philomena could have easily been portrayed as a naïve, doddery old lady in a rather patronising and belittling way. But, although she rambles on endlessly about her latest book and exhibits other stereotypical old lady qualities, this is done in an endearing rather than condescending fashion. The pure pain and heartache of Philomena is portrayed through the slightest of nuances, a glance here or a subtle clouding of the eyes, rather than an overdone emotional barrage that forces the audience to cry along with the characters. However, don’t be put off by the subtlety and refinement of the film. It certainly isn’t boring and there are enough plot twists and drama to keep you glued to the screen throughout. A movie of emotion and drama but delicacy and charm, Philomena is an outstanding film and worth the watch, even if it is just to marvel at Dench’s flawless performance.