One of the most anticipated films in the Venice competition, Stephen Frears’ Philomena blew a breath of fresh air onto the Lido this morning. Essentially a Judi Dench/Steve Coogan two-hander, it screened to laughs, tears and lots of applause – the latter both during and after the film. Following a series of intensely serious movies – some of which, like Gravity, have been very well-received – festgoers were still looking for a genuine crowd-pleaser. Although Philomena treats a very delicate subject matter, which resulted in the pulling out of a lot of hankies in the Sala Darsena, it’s also a very funny and heart-warming film. The Weinstein Co. won a bidding war for it in Cannes after Pathé screened a seven-minute reel for buyers.
Philomena was positioned to open here using a similar strategy to The Queen. Frears also directed that film which won Helen Mirren the Best Actress Volpi Cup, a screenwriting prize for Peter Morgan and the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI). It later garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress which Mirren won. Philomena next heads to Toronto. An exec involved in the film recently told me they hoped to arrive at that festival “with a little bit of a reputation.” Given today’s reaction, that hope would appear fulfilled.
Based on the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, it’s the true story of an Irish woman who was taken in by nuns as a pregnant teenager. Condemned to a slavish life at the abbey, she is later forced to give up the now four-year-old boy to an American couple she never meets. Fast-forward to 2003 and Dench’s Philomena hooks up with Coogan’s Sixsmith, a depressed former journalist and spin doctor who, reluctantly at first, sets out to help her for a “human interest” newspaper story he will write. The quest takes Philomena and Sixsmith from London to Ireland to Washington, DC. There are surprises along the way and a lot of very, very funny moments. One that got the biggest laugh today – and, remember, I’m writing this from Italy – was directed at the Catholic church.
Coogan, a producer on the film, wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope. He’s coming off the success of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, the bigscreen transfer of his most recognizable character which opened at No. 1 at the UK box office last month. Sixsmith is a very different role for the actor and it’s worth noting the irony of him playing a journalist given his well-documented distaste for the British tabloid media. Dench’s recent efforts include two hits of opposite ilk: Skyfall and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. People I spoke with after the screening today were singing praises all around.