So when does Steve Coogan find time to sleep then? He seems to be have been in half the cinema trailers I’ve seen of late, as assorted porn barons (The Look Of Love), estranged fathers (What Maisie Knew) and legendary East Anglian titans of naffness (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa), roles he must have struggled to squeeze in between his sterling Murdoch-bashing turns on Newsnight and the Leveson inquiry and the filming of a new series of The Trip with Rob Brydon. And, look, here he is again, not just starring in but co-writing the script for Stephen Frears’s new film Philomena. Is there maybe more than one of him?
This latest is an adaptation of former journalist and spin doctor Martin Sixsmith’s memoir about an Irish woman’s search for her lost son. Philomena was a victim of the now notorious Magadalene laundries, in which unmarried teenage mothers were forcibly separated from their children by hard-faced nuns and turned into workhouse slaves until it was felt that they’d atoned for their sins and repaid their (non-existent) debts to society (for another account of this see Peter Mullan’s brutal The Magdalane Sisters, if you have the stomach for it). Judi Dench plays the older Philomena, who only chooses to reveal this secret of her traumatic youth on the 50th birthday of her son, while Coogan takes the role of the smart but supercilious Sixsmith, who initially only agrees to help research the story because his high-flying careers as a journalist and a spin doctor have come off the rails amid much media acrimony.
This small-scale but potentially unwatchably dour story doesn’t sound much like a fun night out on paper but rather miraculously Philomena turns out to be a wonderful film, with an intriguing detective story and constant instances of wit and humour perfectly balancing the worthy but grim subject matter. It’s essentially an odd couple two-hander between Dench and Coogan, and Frears is enough of an old pro to pare away distracting sub-plots, complications and overblown setpiece revelations and just let them get on with it. Coogan’s Sixsmith is a muted variation on his stock tactless know-it-all character who unlike Alan Partridge et al does know how to press his case to get results but often finds his glib assumptions about his subject seriously misplaced. Dench on the other hand skilfully projects an air of artlessness and benign naivete which covers some surprising worldliness and great emotional maturity. At different times the two grate on each other in different ways but both are rounded enough human beings to gain insight from the various strained encounters they find themselves in, and they get some brilliantly funny dialogue too.
And on top of all this lovely character stuff there’s an amazing, and apparently true, story here that on a number of occasions catches you off guard and develops in ways you couldn’t have anticipated. One scene in particular, in which what starts as a petty domestic-style row between the two suddenly converts into the most dramatic of bombshells, left me reeling and the impact was heightened by the lack of any bombastic devices on the part of the director to prepare the audience for what was coming. The restrained, TV-movie style of Philomena doesn’t make it look like the kind of film you should go out of your way for, but it’s so brilliant, funny and in places devastatingly effective that you really should.