Philomena (2013 The Weinstein Company)
A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan. Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Executive Producers: Gabriella Tana, Steve Coogan, Tracey Seward.
Ostensibly, Philomena is the story of Philomena Lee; a woman carrying the painful secret of losing her child through forced adoption. Quite a heavy topic, no doubt. But it’s told through the eyes of former journalist Martin Sixsmith, who’s somewhat adrift after “getting sacked” from his job (unfairly, in his own eyes). Martin and Philomena pair up for what can be described as the most peculiar of “buddy flick” road movies as they search to find her son, in both Ireland and the United States. While you think you can predict the plot, rest assured it takes unexpected twists and turns that are jarring and emotional. The most troubling aspect of Philomena? It’s based on a true story, as told by the real Martin Sixsmith in The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and A Fifty-Year Search.
Though it should come as no surprise, Dame Judi Dench is fantastic in the lead role. Philomena is, by all measures, a simple woman. She loves God, loves her family and hasn’t an angry bone in her body. All of which maddens the cynical and condescending Martin Sixsmith, who’s feigning sincerity through his own anger to begrudgingly pen a “human interest story” about Philomena’s search for her son. Steve Coogan, as Sixsmith, plays the frustrated Brit with a perfect blend of passive-aggressive humor to keep him just likable enough to bear his snarky haughtiness.
While Philomena is an intimate film, with the heart of the story in the dialog and interplay between the title character and Sixsmith, it beautifully captures the culture in both Ireland and Washington, D.C. Director Stephen Frears’ use of “grainy” effects on scenes from the past—compared to the high-def lenses of today—provides a subtle cue when the film is looking backward, providing the painful details of Philomena’s troubled and painful childhood.
It’s a story about loss, regret, abuse, anger and a search for redemption. It is also a story that buries the lead, indicting the system that allowed Philomena and scores of other young girls to be effectively jailed for their “sins.” A heavy story, no doubt, but told with enough humor and empathy that it feels more authentic than melodramatic and cliche. Philomena hits all the right emotional marks.
RATING: ***-1/2 (out of five)