How do you spin comedy out of tragedy? The true story of Philomena Lee, a Cathloic woman forced to give up her infant child for adoption in 1950s Ireland, is not exactly laugh-out-loud material on paper.
But Steve Coogan – who both stars and co-writes the screenplay with Jeff Pope – extracts some convincingly warm and human moments amid the horrors of Irish Catholicism’s darkest chapters, in which children born out of wedlockwere effectively sold to the highest bidder.
Stephen Frears’ unfussy direction – and Coogan’s splendid script – maintains a confident balance across many potential conflicts: between humour and pathos, religion and atheism, revenge and forgiveness. And, at its core, a careful equilibrium between the two leads, who join forces to track down the long-lost son.
On the one hand, there’s Philomena: a gentle soul who, despite the grave injustice dealt against her, bears no grudge or bitterness towards the church. On the contrary, a cross hangs permanently from her neck, a prayer never far away from her lips, forgiveness in her heart.
Martin, on the other hand, is almost her antithesis: a lapsed Catholic, an almost-lapsed journalist, impatient of Philomena’s grannyish tendencies, and cynical about the wider world.
They certainly make an odd couple. And much of the comedy is mined from this clash of cultures. Martin observes his unlikely accomplice is what “a lifetime’s diet of Reader’s Digest, the Daily Mail and romantic fiction” will result in.
But despite plenty of opportunities, Frears and Coogan never veer into clichés. It’s emotional without being maudlin, heartwarming without being over-sentimental, a comedy-drama which never once feels cheesy or overcooked.
In the title role, Judi Dench is reliably superb. And as investigative journalist Martin, Coogan delivers a strong, convincing supporting role, laying (at least temporarily) the ghost of Alan Partridge to rest; his powerful, sweet-natured and effortlessly funny script only cements this further.