I realize it’s completely cliché to say this, but Dame Judi Dench could read a phone book and people would listen. Ms. Dench’s remarkable, venerable performance and the screenplay, adapted by her co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 nonfiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee make every moment of Philomena a delight in spite of its deep-rooted and painful themes.
Coogan who grew up Catholic, knows his subject matter well, and when tells the story of Martin (Coogan) and Philomena (Dench), we can tell he is totally connected. Sixsmith’s story follows his efforts to help a retired devout Irish Catholic nurse find her son, a child taken from her some fifty years earlier. As a teenager, a pregnant Philomena’s parents left her in the hands of a Magdalene program in her church, where unwed mothers worked, saw their child for an hour a day and waited, with no control to the contrary, for their babies to go to adopting families. Run by heinous nuns, save a few, the home where Philomena lost her son and her youth still looms in her nightmares. Recently forced to resign from his post as reporter, Martin takes up Philomena’s plight. He and Philomena not only go on a journey, which takes them to the United States to find her son, together they discover the comforting as well as disquieting aspects of faith and foster an unlike friendship.
On one hand Philomena is a comedic buddy film and a detective story, and on the other it is an incensed anti-catholic rant, and an inquiry into faith and the confines of religious reason, all in one film. It brings to light issues we might prefer to bush under a rug, especially those of us who are Catholic, and it demonstrates the strength and power evident in a person’s faith and belief system. Martin and Philomena travel on a pilgrimage of sorts and build a bond that would last for decades. In the end, while little satisfaction actually occurs, a confrontation with the sickly nun who so many years earlier altered the path of Philomena’s life, offers a touch of fulfillment.
Dench captures every nuance, mannerism and emotion warranted of a determined, eccentric character like Philomena – who admits to having enjoyed the sexual liaison of her youth, to accepting homosexuality and to throwing back a stiff shot of whiskey. Coogan, too, exemplifies a man whose own faith has been tested to the point of breaking and whose belief in God left him, like fish on Fridays, weekly confessions, and head covering for women left Catholicism. He’s arrogant and she steadfast. He’s bitter and she’s resolute and Coogan and Dench make the perfect oddball partnership, playing off each other with natural, clever ease.
I wish my mother could see Philomena. I know she would have liked it as much as I. The direction is keen, the stars exceptional and the story gratifying. Director Stephen Frears along with Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope’s screenplay offer a palatable and pleasing mix of humor to what might have otherwise been a morose story of loss and disappointment. I am placing an A- in my grade book – while it is not a film for all ages, it is a film with spirit.