I have mixed feelings about Stephen Frears as a director. He does these strange combinations of 'sweet and cheerful' and 'fraut with emotion'. It's a crowd pleasing combination because it means that you never go so dark as to alienate potential viewers, but you are still engaging the audience with the issue at hand.
Still, it's probably notable that the film of his which I enjoyed the most is probably his darkest: "Dirty Pretty Things" (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Audrey Tautou and even Sergi Lopez, all in the same movie!). It was a film about illegal immigration, prostitution, sexual harassment and the illegal trade in organs, but even that had its sweeter side.
In "Philomena" I was actually surprised at how minimal the tragedy is (at least initially). The protagonist is wronged because her child is adopted by a rich family. Now, this is a child which she could not actually afford to raise herself and which, in that social setting, would have been considered a shame on her. (She was an unmarried mother. Not a big deal now, but back then was enough to get you committed to an asylum.) Living with the nuns was not much fun, but there are now stories emerging of far worse treatment in Church-owned establishments. But thankfully(?) things do get worse. More has happened in those decades since her son was taken away from her. So by the end, we really do have a story worthy of our outrage.
Judi Dench is unsurprisingly a great actress. I'm not sure about her Irish accent, but the way she captures the personality and mannerisms of the character she is performing is perfect. I'm a little less sure about the decision in the script to have her suggesting they spend their time in America watching "Big Momma's House". I'm hoping that this was put in because it really happened (presumably due to Philomena feeling nervous and out of her depth), because otherwise it seems like by far the worst of the ways the script emphasises the class divide between her character and the journalist played by Steve Coogan.
Steve Coogan isn't generally known as a great actor. He's far better known as a great comedian. However, I felt he provided a very strong performance here and acting alongside Judi Dench he never seems out of place. That being said, his character's failings often seem overblown. He is so rude to Philomena's daughter that it's remarkable that she ever agrees to speak to him again.
I'm not sure about the decision to keep showing cinefilm footage of her son's life without her all over the place. As much as it was good to have some stylistic touches, I didn't feel that one worked. At a point where Philomena does not know what has happened to her son, it feels wrong that we should be seeing clips of her son with his new parents.
I must also admit, I wasn't really buying into the message at the end. That's not a big criticism, since being able to discuss a film's message is part of the point. I don't have to agree with the filmmakers. I simply need to have understood what their point was and to have had that point displayed to me in a clear and plausible fashion.
There's a message of forgiveness here, but it must be noted that it is forgiveness with a twist to it. I still don't think forgiveness was the right response, but I can understand its importance in the context.
Philomena has its flaws, but even though I felt strangely distant for much it, this is still a film with a powerful message and strong emotional resonance in places.