Philomena. Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
Rating: 8 (out of 10)
It's a political story, it's a personal story, and Philomena's a bit of a miracle, given that the tale of a prim Irish pensioner in search of her long-lost son manages to escape being maudlin.
It's an engaging, moving story, not a manipulative, sixhankie weep fest.
Judi Dench stars in the title role (can you hear the Oscar buzz already?) as a woman who has kept a secret for decades. Then, on what would be her son's 50th birthday, Philomena unburdens herself to her daughter: she had a son out of wedlock, he was adopted before she could properly say goodbye, and she's spent a lifetime looking for him.
A flashback shows young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) abandoned at a convent by her family. The sisters delivered the babies, and both mother and infant often died. The shamed mothers slaved seven days a week for a period of four years to work off the debt owed to the sisters; the babies were adopted, often to rich Americans with ready cash.
After the bombshell announcement, Philomena's daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) petitions journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to tell her mother's story. But human interest stories are "for the weakminded" according to Martin, and he initially dismisses it.
However, he needs the work, and the further Martin delves into Philomena's story the more interesting it becomes. What starts as a human interest piece becomes much more, a mystery with all sorts of twists and turns and ecclesiastical and political implications.
"I'd like to know if Anthony ever thought of me because I've thought of him every day," says Philomena. Movies of her son play endlessly in her head. Their quest takes them from the bucolic Irish countryside to Washington, D.C. Martin, a former altar boy, struggles with his own faith while Philomena's seems unshakable: she still kneels and says her prayers at bedtime every night, and doesn't blame the sisters or the church for her predicament. There are jabs at "the Sisters of Little Mercy" but the film is less damning than others, The Magdalene Sisters, for example. If you were Catholic and had a thousand pounds, you could buy a baby, the film attests. There's an autographed photo of Jane Russell on the convent walls: the scandal surrounding Russell's hasty adoption of an Irish baby boy almost derailed her career, and the practice of Americans taking advantage of lax Irish adoption laws in the 1950s is well documented.
Of course, all this seriousness is occasionally rattled by chats about the clitoris and the guilty joy of sex, or Philomena's kindly cluelessness when it comes to political correctness. Both the comedy and the tragic turns of the story are understated and spot-on.
Coogan co-produced the film and co-wrote the script, based on Sixsmith's 2009 book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee." Coogan is a familiar actor in Britain, best known for his comedic character Alan Partridge. He spoofed both that character and himself in 2010's The Trip, a critical hit that enjoyed modest box-office returns in North America. It's a welcome change to see Coogan play it straight and his unlikely chemistry with Dench is the lynch-pin of the film's success.
Ultimately, Philomena is a film about faith, family and and forgiveness, making it perfect holiday viewing.