Steve Coogan in Philomena (UK 2013)

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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin (Steve Coogan) with the nuns in Tipperary

Philomena will be a big hit and it deserves to be so. There will be plenty written about it so I’ll confine myself to just a few comments. The biggest surprise for me was the seemingly ‘personal’ or ‘authorial’ stamp of Steve Coogan. The film may star Judi Dench and be directed by Stephen Frears, but it feels like Coogan is the driving force. He identifies with the subject matter (as a working-class/lower middle-class boy from a Manchester-Irish Catholic background), he produced the film using his own company Baby Cow, co-wrote the film with Jeff Pope and he takes one of the two leading roles as the Martin Sixsmith character.

The highlights for me (and other audiences will pick others) are those scenes in which Coogan/Sixsmith struggles with his own mixture of anger, frustration, cynicism and some form of revelation. For anyone interested in film acting and the exploitation of a ‘persona’, Coogan is a fascinating case study. He’s an accomplished mimic and comic actor but his success in creating ‘alternative’ comic personalities such as Alan Partridge means that it’s sometimes possible to see Coogan on screen struggling to contain three different characters inside the same role. For me The Look of Love earlier this year demonstrated how this can all go terribly wrong, whereas The Trip was a complete success. Coogan’s persona also fitted his portrayal of another North-Western character in 24 Hour Party People, again for Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom got it wrong with The Look of Love and credit, it would seem must go to Stephen Frears for keeping Coogan in check in his role as Sixsmith.

There is an interview on the Guardian film website with Coogan and Sixsmith together which I found quite fascinating. Sixsmith is yet another North-West boy (from Cheshire) but Oxford and stints in Moscow and Washington for the BBC have given him the confident sheen which Coogan hasn’t quite got. Watching Coogan as Sixsmith in the Washington scenes of Philomena, there is a tension because of this but it works to help represent the struggle going on within the character. At other times, I thought “those are Coogan lines” – there is a lovely bit of ‘business’ when Coogan/Sixsmith spots a photo of Jane Russell on the wall in a house of nuns and confuses her with Jayne Mansfield, blurting out that they were both ‘big’ women. Somehow these scenes too seem to help the characterisation.

Philomena is one of those popular films that have the potential to get people talking about important social issues. It’s a quality production with Robbie Ryan looking after camerawork and Alexandre Desplat as composer. It has some oddities in its narrative construction, partly the result I imagine of adapting a book which itself is a narrativised account of Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith’s search for the son she ‘lost’ 50 years earlier. It also poses an interesting question for narrative theorists. I won’t spoil the storytelling but do watch out for the use of old home movie footage that is introduced early in the film – before any of the characters on the screen could have seen it. I’m not sure what you could call this as it is a flashback and flashforward at the same time. I’m now interested to see what form any future critical writing about the film takes. I had feared that Philomena might be just another of those dull ‘awards films’ but it is much more interesting than that. I have seen some IMDB comments suggesting that it is another King’s Speech. Philomena has had similar ratings problems in the US (there are two or three, wonderfully effective, ‘fucks/fecks’ in the film) – but don’t worry it’s much more interesting than that earlier box-office winner.

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