“I want to be in films! Good films.”
Thus spoke Steve Coogan, playing a fictionalized version of himself in The Trip, to his UK agent (Justin Edwards) — and you can’t blame the actor for being a bit exasperated. The exchange comes after Coogan turns down an opportunity to be the villain on a Doctor Who episode, citing his disinterest in accepting parts on the same British television where he rose to fame in the early-mid ’90s playing clueless broadcaster Alan Partridge.
While the comically inept egomaniac remains Coogan’s most iconic character, and one he’s returned to over the years — including a feature-length film in 2013 — he’s fought valiantly to expand into “good films.” For years, however, the results were fairly minuscule, often literally so. After playing a toy WWI soldier brought to life through the play-set magic of The Indian in the Cupboard, he again went small for all three Night at the Museum films, this time as a pint-sized Roman soldier.
The puny statures of these characters were sadly emblematic of the paltry but nevertheless memorable film roles Coogan was taking in the 2000s, which consisted of supporting turns in various hits (Tropic Thunder; In the Loop; The Other Guys) and misfires (Marie Antoinette); amusing anthologies (Coffee & Cigarettes; Happy Endings); and ill-fated blockbusters (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief; Around the World in 80 Days, where, if anyone remembers, he was actually the co-lead alongside Jackie Chan).
But in his collaborations with the prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, Coogan had multiple chances to show his range. As Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson in the marvelous 24 Hour Party People, Coogan proves deft at blending comedy and drama, while Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story finds him exploring the comedic delights of the pseudo-documentary sub-genre, combining self-deprecating humor of his (British famous) public persona with an ambitious literary adaptation and the general wackiness of a film production.
And yet despite what he refers to later in The Trip as “very good art house films that have been very well reviewed by some of the broadsheet newspapers,” Coogan struggled to break through to mainstream audiences — including mainstream indie ones — and establish himself as more than just a variation on Alan Partridge.
“You just need one film, Steve, and that will propel you,” his agent tells him in The Trip, after which Coogan reminds his paid representative that he’s done 10 such projects. “You need the right film,” the agent retorts. “You’ve got a huge amount of momentum.” Later, in one of the film’s final meals with co-star Rob Brydon, the pair discuss Michael Sheen’s recent impressive run, which only deflates Coogan further. “No one will give those roles to me,” he says.
Minus such opportunities, the real-life Coogan took it upon himself to create one in 2013 with Philomena (available to stream on Hulu starting March 25). Though he wrote the bulk of his Partridge material and the 2001 comedy The Parole Officer, Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adaptation of journalist Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee provided the opportunity to harness the highs of his career thus far — building on the tonal balance of his Winterbottom films while amplifying his command of drama and still bringing plenty of his trademark wit to the screen.
With revered populist director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) behind the camera, Coogan fulfills his true destiny as an adapter of fact-based tales about determined women on a quest — and as a supporting player who aids the protagonist in her pursuits.
As the titular Irish woman in search of the son that was taken from her nearly 50 years ago by the nuns of the Sean Ross Abbey, Judi Dench ably conveys a range of emotions that a devoutly religious woman living with what she perceives to be a shameful secret would harbor. Though a seemingly sheltered retiree, prone to faux pas and rambling, Philomena is also quick-witted and capable of stinging those who underestimate her.
The target of her fiercest barbs is none other than Coogan’s Martin, an Oxford graduate (and disgraced former civil servant) with an air of superiority that warrants chastisement. While his atheist frustrations with the church run counter to Philomena’s penchant for grace and forgiveness, his slowly developing sense of genuinely wanting to help the subject of his human interest story sustains her wavering investment in discovering the truth about her son and is rewarded with heartfelt thanks.
Such dramatically rich rapport was unexpected from Coogan at that point in his career, yet his and Pope’s delightful dialogue makes a difficult subject palatable — while still making room for seriousness at appropriate junctures — and nicely complement the inherent intrigue of the odd couple’s road-trip investigation.
Together, they also gift Coogan one of his juiciest supporting turns to date. The onscreen duo’s journey is peppered with disarmingly funny conversations, particularly Philomena bluntly recalling the loss of her virginity while she and Martin stand amidst beautiful Irish countryside, and a monologue on an airport shuttle where she summarizes in great detail the cozy romance novel she’s just read. Unable to escape either awkward exchange, Martin resorts to hilarious reactions to express his immense discomfort, all of which go just as humorously undetected by Philomena.
The tonal tightrope walking is brilliantly executed, yet likely wouldn’t be this effective without the confidence Coogan gained throughout his years of comedy. One needs a firm foundation to take seriocomic risks like these, and combined with his expressed desire to be in quality productions, his gifts converge under Frears’ direction to unprecedented heights.
Philomena turned a $12 million budget into a $100 million worldwide gross, and earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. And while it’s taken 10 years, the Coogan/Pope/Frears super-team has at last reunited for another winner: The Lost King (in theaters March 24), about Edinburgh-based amateur historian Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) and her search for the remains of King Richard III.
As before, the screenwriters give another of Britain’s best actresses a well-rounded role, placing her in a charming underdog position — this time seeking to overcome centuries of misinformation about the monarch (Shakespeare, you’re on notice), numerous failed attempts by more experienced seekers before her, and various institutions unwilling to take her seriously. Capitalizing on a rare leading role, Hawkins excels as this small, determined woman, and soulfully expresses Philippa’s vulnerabilities via imagined conversations with her idealized version of Richard (Harry Lloyd).
While Coogan plays a much smaller part as Philippa’s husband John, with whom she’s separated yet still co-parenting their two sons, he makes the most of his screen time — fairly and unfairly exasperated at Philippa’s efforts, yet ultimately providing key support when she needs it most.
In both films, the screenwriting team poignantly depicts the injustices suffered by these innocent women to the extent that viewers can’t help but celebrate like football hooligans when our humble heroes triumph and the villains get their comeuppance. Even then, however, it’s not that simple. Rather than a great evil being forever defeated, injustices linger and victory takes the shape of the protagonists discovering a sense of personal peace — a far more realistic and satisfying conclusion than a typical Hollywood ending.
Coogan may never play a textbook conquering hero — or even write one — but he’ll long be a comedic hero as Alan Partridge and “Steve Coogan” from The Trip movies provide laughs for decades to come. However, by aiming higher and adding a layer of maturity to his distinct sense of humor, the beautiful, complex, nuanced, yet wholly accessible Philomena and The Lost King are destined to be Coogan’s defining works.
“Philomena” is on Hulu starting Saturday; “The Lost King” is in theaters Friday.