PHILOMENA directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, with Judi Dench, Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark and Ruth McCabe. An eOne release. 98 minutes. Opens Friday (November 29). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNNN
Steve Coogan is rebounding.
After spending a few years vigorously pursuing the American market with projects like Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, the actor and occasional screenwriter has refocused his energies on his native England.
This year Coogan played UK porn czar Paul Raymond in Michael Winterbottom's biopic The Look Of Love and revisited the character that made him famous in the feature film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
This fall he arrived at the Toronto Film Festival for the premiere of Philomena, based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who enlisted the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith to find the son she'd been coerced into giving up for adoption five decades earlier.
Coogan co-wrote and co-produced the film, and plays Sixsmith opposite Judi Dench's Lee. And though Philomena is being marketed as a prestige picture - with particular attention being paid to Dench's Oscar-buzzed performance - that's not how it plays at all.
"We tried to avoid that," he says. "When I wrote it with Jeff [Pope], Jeff would say, early on, ‘That sounds right.' And I went, ‘Well, if it sounds right, it's probably wrong. If it sounds right, that's because we've seen it before.' It should sound... awkward maybe?
"And then it was about avoiding the [predictable] beats, avoiding cliché, avoiding lots of things. Not contriving the humour, and trying to find the truth where it occurs naturally. Feeling moved and amused and all that. When all those things collide, and it's really rich and alive, it's a visceral pleasure."
Another thing Philomena assiduously avoids is taking sides between the secular, upper-class Sixsmith and the working-class Catholic Lee. Coogan insisted that the film paint neither as a caricature.
"It has to transcend that," he says. "In the simplest way, it's about having some sort of humanity. No one has all the answers, and Martin, for all his intellect, hasn't learned how to live life any more than this simple working-class Irish woman. And she doesn't have all the answers, but she seems to be making a better fist of it than Martin."
There's also a respect for Lee's Catholicism that feels unusual for mainstream cinema. Philomena certainly seems better at following the teachings of Christ than the nuns who exploited her as a teenager.
"There's a lot of personal stuff in there," Coogan says. "I was raised a Catholic, but I'm not a Catholic any more. I'm not religious, in that I don't need an institution to maintain the value system that was passed on to me as a result of being raised Catholic. I share a lot of those values, but I don't believe a man called Jesus Christ died for my sins and I'm going to go to heaven. I always like to quote Douglas Adams from the opening of Richard Dawkins's book, where he says it's enough to admire the beauty of the garden without having to believe fairies live at the end of it.
"But I also wanted to dignify people of simple faith," he explains. "Many people live honourable lives and are faithful. [They're] not newsworthy; they don't make for good copy. But they're there."