“Philomena” Movie Review

      Judi Dench, the British actress most audiences will know from her appearances as “M” over the last 20 years of Bond films, steps seamlessly into the title role of director Stephen Frears’ “Philomena”, the true story about a woman who spent the better part of 50 years in search of her long lost son.  The events depicted bring together an unlikely pairing of a woman who looks at the world from a “glass half full” perspective with a political journalist whose experience in the cut throat world we live in has left him cynical and mostly impatient.  Their union brings both together as they embark on an undeniably touching journey which leaves the duo in a better place at it’s conclusion. 

     The film features a solid adaptation co-written by co-star Steve Coogan that supplies timely comic dialogue throughout a narrative full of tearful emotional moments, lending the film a nice balance between the serious and light hearted.  As real life BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, Coogan delivers a nuanced performance playing a man who has had his fair share of disappoints in people and thus struggles to believe in righteousness.  This changes when he takes a meeting with Philomena (Dench), a woman with an incredible story to tell and one that peaks the interest of Martin. 

     Frears constructs his telling of the book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” written by Sixsmith, by blending the present day with flashback scenes relevant to the current proceedings.  As a young teenager, Philomena became pregnant and was forced to live with her child in a convent run by nuns in a rural Ireland town.  This, of course, means Philomena is being raised with a deeply religious background with seemingly all of her life’s decisions being made with her beliefs in mind.  This includes the fact she got pregnant at such a young age and it appears the nuns in the convent are hell bent on continually punishing her for her indiscretions.  When the convent’s dirty well kept secret rears itself, the victim is Philomena, as she witnesses her son being sold by the convent to Americans for adoption, never to be seen again.

     Now in her 60s, Philomena pitches her story to Sixsmith and he agrees to accompany her to the United States in an attempt to track down her son.  Their relationship throughout the film brings to light several interesting traits within each character’s personality.  It’s clear Philomena, who refers to everyone she comes into contact with as “one in a million”, sees no reason to look negatively on her past, even when it is found there may have been foul play involved.  She remains fiercely religious, yet she makes no apologies for her teenage pregnancy and even states early on to Sixsmith that she enjoyed her first sexual experience.  This cheerful attitude towards life is in sharp contrast to Sixsmith, who recently received embarrassing news coverage of his own after being fired as a high level political advisor.  Sixsmith would typically scoff at giving any consideration to a “human interest story” like Philomena’s, yet her story seems to resonate in his mind, even if it does for the wrong reasons.

     Sixsmith makes no secret of his disdain for religion and his lack of belief in God, referencing age old arguments questioning God’s existence and why he would allow brutal events such as terrorist attacks to occur.  During their travels, this unlikely duo debate the merits of religion, with Sixsmith mostly on the attack and Philomena deflecting those attacks in the most chipper of ways, and even when the story reaches it’s end game, nothing is really settled in that department.  Belief or no belief, I doubt any audience would not condone what members of the convent did to Philomena in the name of God, and yet finding out seemed to allow for closure in what had to be one of the most painful loose ends anybody could endure for the majority of their life.  Whereas, Sixsmith’s reaction to Philomena’s son’s whereabouts is one of revenge and unforgiving, Philomena instead chooses the high road,  not only forgiving, but also remaining content with having the knowledge she knows every mother has the right to.

     Frears film doesn’t have to rely on grand epic shots or adrenaline fueled situations, instead choosing to form a solid foundation set by two outstanding performances and a very human story all of us can relate to.  Dench is fantastic, stepping away from the high end British royalty roles she is accustomed to, by playing someone as sweet and kind as your very own grandmother.  In a supporting role, Coogan hits the mark as somewhat of an anti hero, who evolves from an overly ambitious and self righteous journalist into someone who begins to understand the things that are really important in life.  The fact these two actors are able to convey these emotions in a feature film which runs just over an hour and a half is astounding and makes each performance Oscar worthy.  I would expect nods for both Dench and Coogan, as well as for Coogan and Jeff Pope for their adaptation of Sixsmith’s book.  Simply put, Philomena is one of the best films of the year, in what has become one of the better years for overall quality in filmmaking.  GRADE: A