Steve Coogan proves that comics can make some of our finest dramatic actors. This oftentimes outrageous Brit refines his skills with timing, nuance and heightened characterizations into a disciplined and perfectly honest multilayered performance as a former British journalist on a redemptive journey with a haunted elderly Irish lady in “Philomena,” now available on DVD at your Roanoke County Public Libraries. As cynical minded Martin Sixsmith, the real-life author of the book from which the film was adapted, Coogan’s remarkable performance is brusque, amusing, mysterious and totally relatable.
His role and performance is every bit as central to the story as Judi Dench’s Oscar nominated turn in the title role. Sixsmith at first dismisses Philomena Lee’s fruitless search to find the child that was taken from her 50 years ago as a human interest story in which he has no interest. However, after seeing the pain and desperation in this simple woman and encountering stonewalling from the abbey in which Philomena was confined as a pregnant young girl, he becomes her crusading angel determined to find her peace.
The movie is as much about the relationship between these two disparate people as it is locating Philomena’s son. Coogan’s adapted screenplay mines wonderful humor from this working class Irish nurse traveling with an educated disgraced journalist and sees them bring out the best in each other. Sixsmith is a jaded man of the world opposite Philomena’s sheltered traveller encountering the world with a child-like wonder. His dry humor and sarcasm are lost on her straightforward, innocent and humorless personality. And his lack of faith in God and religious figures balances with her strong faith and complete trust in others.
Dench is at her best in little moments such as when Philomena learns that Sixsmith once met her son. The joy and relief that registers in her eyes and on her face as she simply learns that he had a firm handshake is powerfully moving. Such moments amplify the tragedy and real horror uncovered in this shockingly true story filled with dark secrets, startling revelations and evil under the guise of piety.