Well, look, there's all sorts of ways I could launch into a review of Stephen Frears' Philomena, but only one which I know will get every regular reader excited.
In other words – he's back! I am, of course, referring to my trusty Comparison Wrangler, who in the past has shared with me his considered verdicts on Beasts of the South Wild ('Waterworld meets City of God'), Silver Linings Playbook ('One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest meets Dirty Dancing'), Hitchcock ('The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns'), and Lincoln ('Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry'). Circumstances have meant that the Wrangler and I have not been able to go to the cinema together in a ridiculously long time, but finally the stars came right and off we went to see Philomena (Mrs Wrangler came along too).
To be honest, Philomena had not featured prominently on my list of films to see, even though it does feature Steve Coogan, whose praises I have been intermittently singing this year, and Judi first-person-to-F-bomb-a-Bond-movie Dench, who's one of those people who seems utterly incapable of giving a poor performance.
Based on a true story, in Frears' movie Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist-turned-government-spin-doctor-turned-unemployed-person (such has been the career trajectory of many in recent years, but at least he managed to dodge jail time), looking to restart his career in some fashion. A chance encounter at a party leads him to Philomena (Dench), a little old lady from Ireland who fifty years earlier was compelled to give up her firstborn son for adoption.
Philomena, naturally, has never stopped thinking about her child, but all her efforts to track him down have come to nothing. Though Martin is dismissive of this kind of narrative from a journalistic point of view, on the most basic level it at least offers him the possibility of selling a story, so he agrees to use his contacts to assist her with her enquiries.
And what follows is the sort of story you would mockingly dismiss if it were presented to you purely as a piece of fiction. I knew very little about Philomena prior to going to see it, and the various twists and jumps in the narrative consistently engaged and surprised me.
The main reason I was indifferent to actually seeing this film was that, essentially, I thought it was a movie about various institutionalised horrors perpetrated by the Catholic Church and parents cut off from their children by great distances and long periods of time. I've seen that film; I've seen that film a number of times, in fact (as The Magdalene Sisters and Oranges and Sunshine, to name but two), and I don't particularly feel the need to go and see another version of it unless it brings something new and different to the table.
And Philomena does this, mainly because the horrible-Catholic-nun material is sparingly deployed (needless to say this also makes it more effective), and much of the film is instead played as an odd-couple comedy drama. Philomena is sweet, straightforward, uncultured, and decent; Martin is educated, refined, highly intelligent and deeply cynical. The film is fundamentally about how he gives her the answers she has been waiting most of her life for, and how she manages to instill in him a little more humanity and feeling.
The film is smart enough to anticipate the criticism that this type of narrative might not be more than woman's magazine sob-story fodder, and the script has an unexpectedly sharp edge in places: Martin is initially only doing it for the cheque, privately very dismissive of Philomena, and indifferent as to whether the actual resolution to their search is a happy or sad one (both are equally good from a journalistic point of view). You know this won't last, but it's still a refreshing perspective to see on screen.
And of course it doesn't hurt matters at all that the majority of the film is a two-hander played between performers both carved of solid Star. It isn't even as if Coogan is there to deliver the smart, jaundiced comedy while Dench rolls out the tear-jerking stuff. Both of them get their moments both of comedy and real drama, and both are equally effective. It isn't really a surprise to see a film in which Judi Dench gives a virtuoso display of acting – but it is, perhaps, where Steve Coogan is concerned. Nevertheless, he matches Dench here.
This is, I think, the fourth live-action movie starring Steve Coogan to be released this year (the third I've actually seen, after The Look of Love and Alan Partridge), which is an impressive work rate even before one considers the sheer range of material he appears in. Nevertheless, I think this may be a bit of a watershed moment for Coogan as a performer – it's not a grotesque, not a comedy turn, he's not playing an exaggeration of himself or delivering a sparkling cameo. This is a proper leading man performance from someone with serious chops as an actor, and as such this may just be his finest hour at the movies to date (the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film himself are also not to be overlooked).
This is an impressive, well-made, frequently very funny and equally quite moving film, which nevertheless has respect for its audience and doesn't lay the sentimentality on with a trowel. It's powered by two extremely good performances from two of the UK's finest actors, and it's a bit of a treat. I wasn't planning to see this film, but I'm very glad I did.
And at the end I looked at my trusty Comparison Wrangler, not even needing to ask the question.
'Harold and Maude,' quoth he, 'meets Finding Nemo.'
He's still got it.