Glum, mostly compelling, and not blinkered by its good intentions, Philomena is a poignant meditation on motherhood lost and a subtly told tale of tragedy and redemption – plain and occasionally sappy, growing surprisingly inward and dense. It’s a small, smart, and unsweetened film deserving of a large audience.
Philomena is a work of fall-season awards-friendly cinema whose every move seems strategically plotted, and which engineers considerable resistance as a result. Add an acidic British star and a director who’s been cranking out workmanlike efforts since the 1980s, and a heavy dose of skepticism is inevitable. Yet while Philomena is saddled with much of the sentimental payoff you’re expecting, there are several intriguing plot twists along the way.
When Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) first hears the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, Jane Eyre, My Week with Marilyn), an Irish-born retired nurse whose illegitimate child was forcibly taken from her, 50 years ago, and literally sold off to new parents, he dismisses it as a “human-interest story,” written about and read by “weak-minded and ignorant people.” Philomena and Martin are forced to give up long-cherished ideas about themselves, and even embrace a politics of confrontation, before Philomena can find her lost child at last.
Playing dowdy instead of regal, Judi Dench gives a luminous performance as the title character. The grande dame’s performance, alternately goofy and grave, illustrating how faith and hell-raising can reside in the same woman, is a tour de force. The role is written a bit too vaguely for Dench, and if you’ve seen her before, her capabilities are unsurprising, yet there is a sadness behind her eyes born of five decades of heartbreak. She’s in line for another Oscar nomination.
If Dench is the best reason to see this unapologetic crowd-pleaser, it takes an effective team to represent the equivocating. Coogan, as the disbelieving journalist, is droll and disillusioned; some will bemoan the absence of his comedic flair. The two have a wonderfully prickly chemistry together.
Though it says almost nothing serious about its themes of justice, forgiveness, and time, it implies its messages with a lightness of touch and a spirit of steel, and remains a searing indictment of the Catholic Church’s antiquated attitude towards the best interests of the child. Its main focus is the sparky, shifting, startling relationship between its two protagonists. At its core, however, this clever, wrenching story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty – virtue at its most tested and tempered.
Philomena proves to be that rarest of commodities: a holiday movie for the entire family that insults no one and leaves no one out. Its techniques may be flat, its arguments may be fiery and simple-minded, and its purpose may be yoked to that desperate allure of little golden men, but it’s an undeniable whopper of a yarn, a sober consideration of how ideals relate to institutions, and easily director Stephen Frears’ most compulsively watchable picture since The Queen.
Well-told if a bit well-trod, over-calculating and occasionally coarse, Philomena is nonetheless a gently funny, moving film that has an earthbound feel to it, one of those small, true stories of resilience, resolution, and kindness that astonish in print and inspire good movies. It honours its namesake by valuing understatement over hysterics. By doing so, it secretes a potent sting.