In most of Steve Coogan’s best roles, he plays an infuriatingly smart hipster with a tiny corner of his soul saved for good cheer. In 24 Hour Party People, he embodied Birmingham rock-raconteur Tony Wilson, a somewhat dissipated lover of Blake and the Romantics who also wanted justice done to the poets of rock and roll. The Trip — his best-loved film — turns the ultimate in-joke on its ear by featuring Coogan as a character who’s simultaneously funny and jerk-like. But in Philomena we get the rare opportunity to watch Coogan free from any layers of irony, and the results are surprisingly moving.
From the advertisements, the film, which Coogan helped adapt from Martin Sixsmith’s nonfiction book, might seem a vehicle for the considerable talents of Judi Dench, playing Philomena, a working-class Irish woman who gave away her illegitimate child through a Catholic convent orphanage and now wants desperately to reunite. Of course, she’s good; her character evolves from mute victim to saint, and Dench knows how to summon the depths and heights. The plot is full of surprises, and the most riveting aspect is the shifting dynamic between Philomena and reporter Martin (Coogan, a talented mimic, playing a man he knows), who keeps pace with her changes while acting like a chorus of shifting moralities. Mostly, he’s a man taking advantage of what life throws at him, and we believe his quiet desperation and his anger.
Without a doubt, director Stephen Frears, a real humanist, makes the film go forward with complicated perspectives, and it’s refreshing to see Dench get serious after playing British spymasters and Marigold Hotel tenants. But it’s Martin’s thunderclap outrage toward the hypocritical machinations of the Catholic Church that delivers this film from road-trip movie clichés, and it’s his revelation that gives this story depth. In the end, we get to see Coogan ready to beat up a nun — not merely sarcastic this time, but mad.