Considering that Steven Coogan is a well known British comic – most famous for his bumbling media pundit Alan Partridge act – you wouldn't think he would be too concerned that people might think his newest film is too serious.
"I just want to let people know that it's a funny film, it's not hard going," he says. "It really is an enjoyable film."
His concerns are understandable though once you hear the film's premise. "Philomena," in which Coogan stars, co-produced and co-wrote, is based on the real life story of Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish woman whose young son was put up for adoption against her will by a so called Irish Laundry, a nunnery where unwed mothers were sent to work and have their children taken care of (and often sold to American families).
Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a depressed former journalist who had been fired from his government flack job, go on a heartbreaking journey to uncover her son's fate. Between its somber subject matter and the gravitas that follows Dench wherever she goes, the film looks like it could be a very serious drama with the Academy Awards in mind.
"I didn't want people leaving the cinema wanting to slit their wrists. I wanted people to leave the cinema feeling kind of positive somehow," Coogan says. He teamed up with screenwriter Jeff Pope to write the screenplay, and brought on Stephen Frears of "The Queen" to direct the film
"We wanted to make a film that was enjoyable to watch and used humor to cancel the sadness," Coogan says. "I knew how to write comedy and Jeff knew how to write drama. I thought I could use comedy to sugar the pill. "
The pill of course is a tough indictment of the Catholic convent which the film suggests actively blocked Philomena's attempts to get in touch with her son. ( The real life nuns involved with Lee's case are objecting to some of the film's claims.)
Yet "Philomena" treats religion and faith delicately. Philomena continues to hold on to her Catholic faith even after the injustices the institution has wrought on her, and she even teaches Martin a thing or two about humility,
"No one has a monopoly on wisdom – including secular people and religious people certainly don't," Coogan says. "The only thing the film says with any definitiveness is that anyone who thinks they have total certainty in their views – they're wrong."
"Philomena" is also a nuanced exploration of shame, sexuality, the media and even politics. As rave reviews have noted, "Philomena" only pulls all this heavy material off with a great deal of humor. Martin and Philomena rib off on one another as an adorable odd couple on an unlikely road trip. Along the way, the film pokes fun at everything from the British class difference to tawdry Readers Digest literature, with Dench playing the "Ah, isn't grandma cute?" card without a flaw.
Coogan first became interested in Lee's story when he read Sixsmith's initial article in The Guardian about the loss of Lee's son and their attempt to locate him.
"It reduced me to tears. It really, really affected me and stayed with me. I just couldn't stop thinking about it. I wanted to dramatize it in some way," Coogan says. He adds it was the photograph that adorned the original article that really stuck with him. "She's laughing – and so is he – but she's laughing so much more than he is. It intrigued me that this woman had gone through such a sad, tragic experience and was laughing."
Coogan bought the rights to the book Sixsmith had written about the experience before it even hit bookstands. Sixsmith continued to consult on the script and Coogan says the dramatic character that emerged also included a lot of Coogan's own background. The Martin Sixsmith of "Philomena" is a lapsed Catholic like Coogan, whereas the real life Sixsmith is not. The screenwriters took some other liberties to punch up the humor, as well as the drama.