Variety: Writers on Writers: Amanda Foreman on Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, and ‘Philomena’

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Last year, I was one the judges for the Man Booker literary prize. It didn’t matter that I am not a novelist. The experience of great writing is a universal pleasure. All writers feel a thrill when they encounter a work that has been beautifully crafted. I felt it while watching “Philomena.”

On one level the story is a straightforward biopic: a working-class woman spends a lifetime looking for the son she was forced to give up for adoption. Yet, behind the apparent simplicity of the film lies a rich layer of theatrical craft. The writers took two potential problems — the circuitous nature of the story and the missing voice of the son — and turned them into virtues.

For the first, the device of repetition in all its guises is employed to powerful effect. Sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, phrases are repeated, patterns are followed and locations are revisited. The accumulative result is a heightened sense of nostalgia, as though we are listening to an old folk tale where the story is but a mechanism for exploring the darker recesses of human experience. In conceiving the second, the writers allowed the absent son a starring role, but confined him to a series of wordless pictures in old family videos and photographs. Like Banquo’s ghost, the image cries out to us precisely because an injustice has rendered it silent.

“Philomena” reminds me in the best way that for all writers, the quest for authenticity demands the highest form of artistry.

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