Out-of-work journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is looking for a story. Something worthy of his talents. Not personal. And definitely not “human interest” (by which he means sob story). That is until he meets Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a straight-talking Irish woman in her late sixties who is trying to track down the son taken from her 50 years earlier. As a teenager. By nuns.
Telling the true-life tale of one of Ireland’s darker historical moments, the film swings neatly between recounting Philomena’s past and Martin’s present-day journey, and his transition from detached, journalistic indifference to a realisation that at last he has found a story worth fighting for. And while they never change their own outlook to match the other person’s viewpoint, the common understanding to which they come is nonetheless heartfelt.
Thankfully, although there are plenty of opportunities for this to become a dark melodrama infused with regret and longing, each time it comes too close to sadness, there is a laugh to lighten the load. Martin’s deadpan approach clashes brilliantly with Philomena’s eccentricity – Coogan, who puts in one of his best perfect performances yet, was also responsible for the script – to bring just the right amount of fun whenever it threatens to become bogged down. (Although you might still need that tissue.)
Both leads are outstanding – for once the BAFTA talk is justified. And as for any accent queries, I have come to the conclusion that its nothing more than the fact that we are not used to hearing Judi Dench sounding anything other than Queen’s English…