When Steve Coogan first read about Irish mother Philomena Lee’s search for the son she was pressurised into giving up for adoption, he was brought to tears. He was so moved that he secured the rights to the book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, co-wrote the screenplay with his producer partner Jeff Pope, and cast himself as the former BBC journalist who penned the book, Martin Sixsmith.
In 1952, when Lee was a teenager, she became pregnant and ended up in Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Shortly after her son Anthony was born she began working in the Abbey’s laundry, unpaid and unable to leave. However, she had all of one-hour a day with her son. When he was three-years-old, he was adopted by an American couple unbeknownst to his mother and she never had the chance to say goodbye.
Philomena later married and had a family, but when she went in search of her son the nuns not only suggested she leave things as they were but also blocked her path. Seeing her pain, her daughter, Jane, helped bring Sixsmith on board in a bid to uncover the truth.
At first it may seem unusual for the man who brought Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa to the world to play such a serious role. However, as Coogan told RTÉ TEN, he was looking for a more dramatic yet meaningful role and this was it.
He also said that his Irish Catholic upbringing in the UK played a part in his need to tell this tragic true story - Irish roots also helped secure Judi Dench the eponymous role. Having an Irish mother and strong family links here, Dench told Coogan that she had been keen to play an Irish role for quite some time. It is little wonder she is being tipped for a second Oscar (following a Best Supporting Actress award in 1999 for Shakespeare in Love) as from the first moment she appears on screen and the first words she utters, Dench transforms from the English Dame with the shock of grey hair into the elderly Irishwoman. She may be a little more twee than is the case in real-life - and Sixsmith may be a little more hardened - but this odd-couple spin is where the artistic licence ends as they mention in this interview here.
While the true story is indeed heartbreaking, it is so heart-warmingly written, with this relationship as the key focus, that it will have audiences laughing and crying.
Unlike The Magdalene Sisters, which was another important and brave exploration into the ugly truth of life behind doors of numerous Irish Catholic institutions, Philomena is also an exploration of faith and forgiveness in its various forms. Under the direction of The Queen’s Stephen Frears, Coogan and his ironically named co-writer Pope use humour as a valuable tool to help the story unfold. With the appropriate 12A cert, Philomena can be watched and discussed in both homes and schools, which is perfect, as this is a story that needs to be told and retold.