dame judy dench & steve coogan

Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

*Not made to be a holiday film, “Philomena” definitely has the ingredients of one.

There are evil doers, forgivers and well-written characters complemented by an intelligent script that need not rely on special effects or gratuitous sex.

It stars Steve Coogan as the snobbish, intellectual   journalist Martin Sixsmith who is an atheist and Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, the unsophisticated mother abused by nuns but never loses her faith. Wunmi Mosaku is the young Black nun. Philomena and Martin go on a road trip to find her son that was taken away from her 47 years ago and both their lives are changed, never to be the same.

Coogan made a pit stop in New York at the Cosby Hotel to talk about a project that slightly strays from the norm and set him on a precarious course. The writing was so rich, The Film Strip began by asking about his input.

Steve, just how involved were you with the writing and did you have anything to do with that euphemism statement where human interest stories are disparaged?

All the dialogue and the character details are really a distortion of the real Martin. Martin is not a lapsed Catholic. I made him a lapsed Catholic because I’m a lapsed Catholic. So half of the Martin character is me and my thoughts and my cynicism. Philomena is much closer to the real Philomena. But I did most of the dialogue and character stuff. Jeff, my co-writer, helped with the structure, the pace, and the rhythm. But the dialogue is mostly me. When Martin said that human interest stories are read by weak-minded, ignorant people, written by weak-minded, ignorant people, that’s me at my most cynical. The thing is that you could accuse the entire film of being exactly that. So I’m as guilty as anyone else. Philomena is a human interest story by definition.

I was just interested in telling Philomena’s story which I had read in the newspaper and found really moving. I just wanted to tell an authentic real story. As a drama, I didn’t see it as being especially funny at first. Then I thought I could maybe use humor to make it bearable for an audience because I thought it was so inherently sad. Whenever I tell people the story in a sentence, they say, ‘Oh that sounds awful. Who would want to go see that?’ I wanted to make it an enjoyable experience and I wanted to find in the sadness a way to lift people up. I didn’t want people to leave the cinema depressed. I wanted them to feel somehow hopeful or positive or inspired by Philomena.

Only small parts of the film are based on Martin’s book. Most of the movie is based on interviews I did with Martin and Philomena. His book deals almost exclusively with the life of the missing son. The article I read in the newspaper had a photo of Philomena with Martin sitting on a bench and they were both laughing. I wanted to tell a story about this odd couple looking for the son. Then, I remembered that I had seen this film called ‘Missing’ years ago and I remember thinking that’s about a journey that two people go on and they learn things about each other and about life. I wanted to have more humor in the story. It ended up being funnier than I thought it would be. I wanted to use a little humor but it ended up with more. When we were writing it we were really careful not to introduce humor all the time and let those moments have real pathos. The humor is never contrived; it always emanates naturally out of a situation.

What did you find so interesting about Philomena’s story?

I wanted to tell the story of a single, working class Irish woman. There are many people like Philomena. My mother is a little like her and my grandparents. I’ve known a lot of ladies in Ireland who are her age and I sort of wanted to celebrate that sort of stoic, forgotten women who have sustained their faith and lead quiet, unremarkable but dignified lives. It’s important that she actually dignifies her faith because I do point the finger at the church. I wanted to distinguish between the hierarchy, the institution and ordinary people like Philomena who are blameless. Not only blameless, but they are the only real hope that that religion has. It’s in those people.

Other Films Opening this Week

With a limited opening, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” is a must see film. I have seen the about every Mandela movie made and this one outshines all the rest with its honesty and comprehensiveness. Idris Elba is Mandela and Naomie Harris is Winnie Mandela.

“Homefront” is another riveting film and Jason Statham best yet. If you thought he was fierce before, don’t mess with his ten-year-old daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic). Too bad all bullies aren’t handled the way Maddy treats them.

Statham is retired because his DEA identity has been compromised. He and his daughter’s skills bring attention to the town folk where they have relocated and James Franco

bites off more than he and other troublemakers can chew.

A holiday wouldn’t be a holiday without a movie for kids. “Frozen” has all the ingredients necessary to appeal to kids of all ages. A snowman named Olaf, a sidekick reindeer Sven, a Snow Queen and her fearless optimist sister, Anna. Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, and Josh Gad are the voices.

Marie Moore is a syndicated veteran entertainment journalist who reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]