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Not Too Sappy, Not Too Harsh: Dench and Coogan in ‘Philomena’

Not Too Sappy, Not Too Harsh: Dench and Coogan in 'Philomena'

If you’re going to tell a heart-warming story about a sweet,
wronged little old lady, it helps — even if she is played by Judi Dench — to have
a hard-nosed, mordantly witty, cynical journalist along to offset the sugar quotient.
That is the brilliant strategy behind Philomena,
the fact-based story of Philomena Lee (Dench), whose 3-year-old son was forcibly
taken from her by Irish nuns who were her supposed protectors, and adopted away
to America.

Soft-voiced and touchingly craggy-faced, Dench is the heart
of the film. Steve Coogan is its brain; he is a  producer, he co-wrote the screenplay (with
Jeff Pope) and he suavely plays  Martin
Sixsmith, a one-time hotshot and now umemployed reporter, who can barely say the
words “human interest story” without sneering.  

Theirs is an unlikely pairing as Martin, on assignment, helps
Philomena, now a retired nurse with a grown daughter, find the son she hasn’t
seen in nearly 50 years. They go back to the austere, gloomy convent in Ireland
where Philomena and other unwed teenaged mothers worked like indentured
servants in a laundry and saw their children for minutes a day if they were
lucky, and if the children hadn’t been  whisked off to new parents. Eventually the nearly-cold
trail — the nuns are politely unhelpful, offering tea while hiding the truth —
takes them to Washington. D.C., where Martin realizes that he must have crossed
paths with Philomena’s son, Anthony, when Martin was a White House reporter and
Anthony a lawyer on Ronald Reagan’s staff.  

This story is dramatic, but it’s the interplay between Philomena
and Martin that creates the film’s perfect, see-sawing balance, capturing the sweet
spot of mass audience appeal. Meek and accepting, Philomena is no crusader, and
doesn’t doubt the Catholic upbringing that tells her she has sinned. When she recalls
the night of her son’s conception, she says about sex, “I knew anything
that felt so wonderful had to be wrong,” and Martin is right there to say
“Fucking Catholics!” making the film safe for skeptics.  Yet whenever his edge threatens to become too
harsh, she steps in with a gentle, matter of fact attitude to reassure the un-cynical
part of the audience,  observing that she
doesn’t want to hate the way Martin does, that it must be exhausting to feel so
angry all the time.

The earliest Washington scenes find some comedy from Philomena-in-the-big-city, but that is simply the film’s way of easing us toward the wrenching emotional discoveries
ahead. Even if you know the story, those discoveries have the force of whiplash.
By then Philomena and Martin have become real enough  —  to
the audience and to each other — so that the plot avoids melodrama.  

Stephen Frears is one of those directors who is usually as
good as his material, and when he has a terrific screenplay like The Queen or Philomena, he knows how to manage it. Sometimes, as in The Queen, he refuses to let any visual stunts
overwhelm the characters and the realism. Here he uses a few more tricks, very
effectively. Early on, Dench looks in a mirror and the image of her lined face fades
into a memory of her past, a colorful carnival scene when the young Philomena meets
her son’s father. Throughout the film, we see videos of Anthony, even before we
quite know how they fit, whether they are Philomena’s imaginings or something
more. Sparing and eloquent, these devices add layers of grace and depth.


The film covers the same tragic, scandalous part of
Irish-Catholic history as Peter Mullan’s much harsher The Magdalene Sisters (2002), but the essence of Frears’ film, embodied
in its heroine and beautifully conveyed by Dench, is forgiveness. It’s a mark
of the film’s savvy honesty that Martin does not forgive the outrages he uncovers;
and it’s a mark of its emotional reach and generosity that he  — and we — come to understand and embrace Philomena.  

Philomena Lee has led a modest life, but  . . . maybe no one avoids publicity forever. Here, in an interview with ET, is a glimpse of the real Philomena today:  


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