Having wowed Venice audiences in the past with The Queen (Dame Helen Mirren picking up the best actress award here in 2006) and Dirty, Pretty Things, Stephen Frears returns to Venice, in competition with Philomena. Judging by the audience’s reaction, it appears he has wowed the festival again.
Philomena is “inspired by” the true story of Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), an elderly Irishwoman living in London who finally decides to unburden herself of a secret: as a teenager she had become pregnant, was taken to the convent-run home for unmarried mothers and was disowned by her father. Her child, Anthony, was then adopted and she has been looking for him ever since. She tells her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) this 50-year-old tale. By chance, Jane runs into wrongfully disgraced spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Although he claims to want to write a book on Russian history, Sixsmith becomes intrigued by Jane’s story and agrees to meet Philomena. What follows is a search for her son and an investigation into the Roscrea convent’s cruel and possibly illegal methods.
Philomena is a self-avowed simple woman but her simple faith is what makes her so outstanding, particularly in our cynical times. She also has a great sense of humour and – when confronted with her son’s homosexuality – a broader outlook than we would have expected (“He was always such as sensitive boy”). In a strange parallel, whilst she was carrying her secret, her son (now called Martin) was hiding his homosexuality from his anti-gay Republican Party employers.
Whilst Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay is bursting with humour and entertaining one-liners this never detracts from the seriousness of the story they are telling. Coogan also shines here in a straight role, though he does suffer a little during the more serious and emotional moments.
And of course he is outshone by the woman who is at his side in almost every scene: the luminous Dame Judi Dench. Some might be surprised at her being cast as a simple Irishwoman, given that we are more used to her razor-sharp quintessential English ladies. But as usual, she is spot-on. At the press conference, Dench mentioned her determination to bring Philomena’s character faithfully to the big screen – her humour, her faith and her humanity. This she has done in spades.
Frears also doesn’t disappoint. Though by no means an auteur, Frears guarantees good storytelling with a well-written and a well chosen cast. There are few cinematic tricks or surprises in his films, but there is always humour and strong, interesting characters. The audience’s delight with the humour and huge round of applause at the film’s end was in recognition of what brought us all to cinema in the first place: the desire to have a great story told well. This could have been a made-for-TV BBC drama but Venice festival-goers’ reactions show that there is still room for solid, no-frills cinema on the festival circuit.