The triumvirate of creative power behind this film is reason enough to see it; they all deliver. In fact, it makes it rather hard to know where to start talking about it.
So let me start with the title character played by Dame Dench (Iris, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). She creates a subtle character unlike most of her previous cv. We are used to seeing her tough, sharp tongued, capable, and, even this late in her career, able to pull off being a Bond girl, as she proved in Skyfall. Philomena is a slightly dotty, but not unintelligent, woman with personal, inner strength. It is a complex role that takes time to develop as her world is challenged and expanded.
Opposite Dench, Coogan (What Maisie Knew, Hamlet 2) provides the drive and proxy for both us and Philomena as the two dig into the past and cope with the issues. This is really Coogan at his best: controlled, intense, vulnerable, intelligent. And despite being a more physically imposing presence on the screen, he manages to cede focus to Dench almost entirely, by design and generosity.
But Coogan’s contributions don’t end with his acting, he also co-wrote the script for the film with Pope. Neither man had much big-screen script exposure before this adaptation, but you’d never notice the gap. Structured wonderfully to provide both background and Philomena’s inner thoughts and fantasies, the story expands beyond a simple search, laying the world and history bare.
Supporting these two are a few faces that have good turns. Mosaku (Dancing on the Edge), Winningham (Mildred Pierce), Jefford (The Ninth Gate), and Clark, as the young Philomena, all provide important moments or expansions of Philomena’s world.
Finally, Frears, as director, wrangles this very intimate, but expansive story into an intense and satisfying nugget that talks about so much more than the story at hand. The critically acclaimed Frears was, in some ways, perfectly made for this story. His previous films cover a huge variety of story types, almost all successfully. From Lay the Favorite, High Fidelity, and My Beautiful Launderette, to The Queen, Dangerous Liasons, and Mary Riley, he covers quite the range of human experience and genre. His quiet hand is nearly invisible as the story unfolds, but the result will catch you off-guard without getting overly sentimental, despite the subject matter.
Philomena, particularly Dench, is well in the running for the Oscars, already having secured other honors along the way. But even if it didn’t win a single statuette more, you should take the time to see this film.