Philomena premiered at the London Film Festival last night.  It was quite red carpet affair with Dame Judy and Steve Coogan attending.  But it was the presence of Sean Mahon that got me all a flutter.  Sean is a dear friend of mine and I feel as though I have been through the journey of this film with him.  So as he was introduced to the audience at the Odeon West End I could not contain my whoops of excitement.  So, please excuse any sycophantic elements of this review.  But if you can’t praise your friend’s work what really is the point of life?!!

Philomena is the true life story of Philomena Lee.  Growing up in Ireland she lived with her aunt.  Her mother had died when she was 10 and her father sent her and her sister to live with her aunt when Philomena turned 18.  After a night at a local carnival she had a met a boy and had quite a fun time with him.  Sadly, she had fallen pregnant.  She was sent to a convent when she endured a breach birth with no pain relief and then had to work off her debt for 4 years in the laundry.  Not really a fair punishment for her sins.

She gave birth to a son, Anthony.  At 3 he was taken from her.  An American couple came to Ireland to adopt a child.  They ended up taking two.  A little girl and Anthony.  Philomena never got to say goodbye to her son.  For 50 years she kept this a secret from her family.  When she eventually told her own daughter she decided to help her find Anthony.

This is where they meet the journalist and former government spin doctor Martin Sixsmith.  He helped Philomena track down her son in the US.  Anthony has been renamed Michael Hess.  He has established a successful career at a lawyer working for both President Reagan and President Bush Senior.  Sadly he contracted AIDs and died in 1995.  Philomena started her search in 2003.

In all the years that Philomena had tried to find her son the nuns refused to give her any information of his whereabouts and who had adopted him.  Michael had too been searching for his mother.  He had travelled to Ireland and visited the convent he was born in to try and locate his mother.  Again, the nuns did not help him.  The tragedy of a dying man trying to locate his mother and not being helped is such an injustice.

Philomena has a serious story at its heart.  The heartbreak of a young girl who is made to suffer a lifetime of guilt for an evening with a boy at a carnival.  But the film has such warmth and humour at its core that you can go from laughter to tears in one scene.  Dame Judy captures the innocence of Philomena Lee so well.  She is a charming and funny woman who is balanced by Steve Coogan playing Martin Sixsmith who is a much more serious and frustrated character.  Director Stephen Frears said before the film that it was almost a romantic comedy.  And at times it certainly was.  The relationship between Dame Judy and Steve Coogan did have all the hallmarks of a romantic comedy without you ever wanting them to kiss.  Their friendship had a true uniqueness to it.

For me the real highlight was seeing Sean Mahon’s face on screen.  He plays Michael Hess so is viewed in flashbacks throughout.  I guess my only criticism is that he is just not on screen enough!

Philomena comes to cinemas nationwide on 1 November.

Sarah Southern