Usually, I try to get to the first screenings of films at TIFF. The Q&A’s and the experience of watching a movie with the people who made it is often as much fun as the film itself. With Stephen Frear’s Philomena, however, I was determined to get to any screening at all, just to make sure I could see it. If the director and cast alone weren’t enough to draw me in, the plot – based on a true story – was bound to do it.
Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, a woman who is trying to find the son she was forced to give up 50 years ago. Aiding in her renewed quest is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced reporter trying to get back into the journalism game by doing a human interest story about Philomena. The seach takes the pair back to the beginning of Philomena’s story, and from there unexpected twists and turns thwart their every move. But Philomena’s determination to locate her son, mixed with Martin’s stubborn unwillingness to take no for an answer propels them both into unforeseen territory.
There’s nothing new or revealing that I can say about this film that won’t have already been said by anyone who has seen it. Obviously, Dench and Coogan are immeasureably incredible in the way they completely inhabit their characters and bring the viewing audience into their world in the most intimate and personal of ways. Each discovery along the way becomes a punch to the gut, and a testament to a mother’s love for the son she never got to know. Time melts away as flashbacks and photographs dot the landscape of the present journey, and as Philomena struggles to retain balance between her love of her faith, and her love of the child that same faith forced her to give up. The viewer is forced to confront certain hard truths at Philomena’s side, and I’m not sure we would all be as strong as she proved herself to be. My own confusion and anger grew as I watched the constant lying and deceit Philomena and Martin met at every turn. To my view, whatever the reasons may have been in the past, to continue that behaviour so completely now is outrageous and unnecessary. And yet, Philomena bears it with every step – for the love of her son.
This is a film not to be viewed without a supply of tissues on hand, and the darker the room, the better. There is,of course, plenty of humour to lift us past the heavier moments, It was definitely a highlight of my festival experience this year, and beyond that, will likely come out as one of my favourites of 2013 overall. Philomena has a ton of heart, a whack of charm, and proves once and for all that the struggle to keep people apart can not remotely compare to the struggle two people have to find one another and come back together again.