It’s no surprise that the Weinstein Co. is releasing “Philomena,” which is one of those movies aimed squarely at the Academy middle. It took a while for writer-producer-star Steve Coogan–who seems to be trying to perform some kind of career rehab by playing a softer-hearted creature than his usual persona–to persuade Stephen Frears to do the directing honors. This relatable true story of a woman forced to join other unwed mothers at a Catholic convent in a state of servitude should be heart-wrenching and often is, thanks to a naturalistic unshowy performance by Judi Dench that deserves awards kudos. It’s based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”
Philomena is one of those unusual movies it’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying. It doesn’t preach or patronise. It’s bright and neat on the ethics of storytelling – Martin has qualms about flogging his subject to the glossies, as well as about the whole notion of the “human interest story” – but it never gets too meta.
The impulse to make Philomena may have been born from anger. Yet it’s resolved with a compassion that trips you up scene after scene. You can stand on a soapbox and still honour the pulpit.
This is an unabashed tearjerker that seems to belong to the Ladies in Lavender school of cosy British films that your granny might enjoy. It has Judi Dench in national treasure mode and plays up its own odd-couple elements shamelessly. Dench’s Philomena Lee is a clucking old lady who reads the Daily Mail and enjoys a gossip. Coogan’s Sixsmith is cynical and sardonic.
However, Philomena is so beautifully written and performed that it goes far beyond sitcom-style stereotyping. It is never patronising.
Frears’s film, comfortably his best since The Queen, is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman in her 70s of strong Catholic faith, who went in search of the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier. Her millpond composure belies troubled depths, which is a character type that Dench plays well: she was awarded two best actress Baftas for playing the writer Iris Murdoch in Iris and Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, and Philomena could easily make it three.
Stephen Frears is in full possession of his filmmaking talent in Philomena, one of his most pulled-together dramas in years. The true story of a poor Irish woman who, fifty years after being forced to give her 3-year-old son up for adoption, searches for him with a worldly British journalist, is touching, witty and always absorbing. The inspired pairing of Dame Judi Dench and actor-writer-producer Steve Coogan, who is currently riding the wave of the British hit Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, will clinch the deal for most viewers and give the Pathé release a good shot at entertaining the world.
A howl of anti-clerical outrage wrapped in a tea cozy, “Philomena” applies amusing banter and a sheen of good taste to the real-life quest of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who spent decades searching for the out-of-wedlock son taken from her by Catholic nuns and sold into adoption overseas. Smoothly tooled as an odd-couple vehicle for Judi Dench in the title role and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who brought Lee’s story to international attention, this smug but effective middlebrow crowdpleaser boasts a sharper set of dentures than most films of its type, shrewdly mining its material for laughs and righteous anger as well as tears.
While she can be terribly funny, Dench is also supremely moving in her role. There’s a scene early on where Sixsmith and Philomena first visit the Roscrea convent to see what news they can find, and the jovial mother superior tells them about the fire that destroyed the records. In a moment of staggering human intimacy, the actress looks down at her lap like she might just fold up and perish right there from the heartbreak. Dench takes your breath away, and so does “Philomena”.