Steve Coogan and Judi Dench make an unlikely but charming team in a moving true story of a mother’s search.
When Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irishwoman in her ‘70s, was a teenager in 1952 Ireland, she became pregnant out of wedlock and was forced to live in shame and secrecy at a convent. There she worked in the laundry and gave birth to a little boy named Anthony, whom she was allowed to see for only one hour a day. When Anthony was three, he was sold by the convent to an American family without Philomena’s permission – and with her having agreed to never inquire about his whereabouts. But Philomena, troubled by the memory of her child despite starting a family years later, has tried for 50 years to learn about Anthony from the convent with no satisfaction. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC journalist and ex-communications director for Prime Minister Tony Blair who has just lost the latter job over a scandal. Skeptical, cynical and disillusioned, Sixsmith reluctantly sees Philomena’s “human interest” story as a way back into journalism and agrees to help her learn what happened to Anthony – with the eventual truth stranger, more poignant and more infuriating than either of them could have imagined (and we’ll try to avoid saying more). Based on Sixsmith’s 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and directed with quiet authority by Stephen Frears, Philomena finds its biggest source of strength in its two central performances. Dench’s Philomena is simple, plain-spoken and amusingly innocent when it comes to the world outside her orderly life, yet possessed of considerable backbone and a strong bond with her faith. Coogan (who also co-wrote the screenplay) effortlessly captures Sixsmith’s world-weariness and subtle, initial disdain for Philomena and her background. Yet he is also humane, and as their relationship warms his quest, turning it into one not just for answers, but of justice. Dench and Coogan have considerable chemistry together, and Coogan’s script allows for numerous opportunities for the two to engage in witty banter as well as more meaningful exchanges. Sixsmith, a lapsed Catholic himself, is perplexed by Philomena’s unwavering devotion to her religious beliefs, while she comes to admire his sense of right and wrong and determination to get to the bottom of the mystery. It is the natural outgrowth of their journey together than Sixsmith’s respect for Philomena only deepens after a climactic moment where he is astounded by her ability to find an awe-inspiring capacity for forgiveness. It is forgiveness and morality that are at the heart of Philomena, which somehow weaves a cover-up by the Church, treacherous nuns, the Reagan Administration and other seemingly random elements into its bizarre life-is-stranger-than-fiction tapestry. If the misdeeds and even corruption of institutions like the Catholic Church are your cup of outrage, you’ll be able drink deeply here – until you come up against the implacable wall of Philomena’s convictions and find yourself wondering how she can do it, and if you would have her strength. It could all get heavy-handed but it never does, thanks to Coogan applying the right comedic touch when needed to the script and his and Dench’s perfectly calibrated performances, Coogan has always excelled at playing somewhat insufferable upper class types, but here he’s more modulated and empathetic. As for Dench, she is in peak form, giving us a real woman who has lived a full and rich life even within the smaller parameters she’s set for herself. There are a couple of stumbles – mainly in one or two moments that seem a bit too contrived onscreen even if they are true – but in the end, Philomena is a moving and even unsettling tale. The passage of time cannot diminish the insensitivity, inhumanity and cruelty of what the Church did with young women like Philomena, practically turning them into slaves while using convents like the one where Philomena was incarcerated (there is no better word) as secret baby mills. Yet all the stonewalling and self-justification on display by the Church’s minions cannot destroy the one thing it ironically should be doing everything to protect: a mother’s love for her child. The power of that love changes the lives of all who are touched by it – including the viewers of this captivating, charming yet haunting movie. Den Of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 stars