Stephen Frears may be credited as the director of Philomena but it remains a film indebted to the written and on-screen force of Steve Coogan. Philomena is a comedic drama, often times depending on the former element at the expense of the latter, about a shamed broadcast journalist played by Coogan. In an effort to rebuild his tainted image, he takes up a human-interest story by agreeing to meet with the titular Philomena (Judi Dench). In what he initially pegs as a fluff piece blows up into a deconstruction of Irish-Catholic teachings, slavery, and even a brief American history overview of the Republican response to the AIDS epidemic. This is a seismic laundry list of Big Theme topics that most filmmakers would struggle to approach and Frears’ hands-off approach forces Dench and Coogan to make do with some heavy lifting that they’re ill-equipped for.
Adhering to essentially a 50-year vow of silence, Philomena confesses her great sin to her daughter: her illegitimate son was sold to an American couple by nuns who enslaved her until she was 18. The material is ripe for melodrama but thankfully Coogan and his cowriter Jeff Pope undercut the melodrama with something closer to an investigative lens, at least from the start. Philomena is really just a film of exaggerated contrasts. Coogan’s liberal tirades operate to contrast Dench’s conservative tendencies: Old Guard guiding New Theoretics. It makes for plenty of “aw shucks” moments as Coogan and Dench make for a cutesy odd couple. I was with Philomena for a good portion of its first and second acts, but it progressively loses momentum as layer upon layer of melodrama is added. Coogan, the writer, proves to be incapable of addressing the tonal shifts in his narrative and Frears fails to address the disconnect between the picture’s light comic touches with the heavy emotional hurdle it attempts to cover.
Coogan, the actor, salvages most of what he can by the picture’s end. It’s not a complete loss but it’s an effort that is overwhelmed by its contrivances and slightness. The film’s resolve is to show two characters that have lost components of their identities and convey their differing methodology in coping. Coogan’s cynicism versus Dench’s optimism. The film clearly sides with Coogan’s rational thinking - his character propels the narrative through sheer force of will. But the emotional baggage of his anger is brought to trial at Philomena’s end. What was once a film that celebrates forward thinking and a thirst for truth becomes more about embracing passivity. The road of the cynic and the optimist don’t often cross, but when they do, the day to day fight might simply not be worth fighting, lest you want to contend with the exhaustion. Who’s got time for that?