Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith)
Stars: Judi Dench (Philomena Lee), Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith), Sophie Kennedy Clark (Young Philomena), Mare Winningham (Mary), Barbara Jefford (Sister Hildegarde), Ruth McCabe (Mother Barbara), Peter Hermann (Pete Olsson), Sean Mahon (Michael), Anna Maxwell Martin (Jane), Michelle Fairley (Sally Mitchell), Wunmi Mosaku (Young Nun), Amy McAllister (Sister Anunciata), Charlie Murphy (Kathleen), Cathy Belton (Sister Claire), Kate Fleetwood (Young Sister Hildegarde)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2013
Country: U.K. / U.S. / France
PhilomenaEqual parts uplifting tearjerker, odd-couple comedy, and righteous screed against abuse of power in the name of religion, Philomena tells the true story of an Irish woman’s decades-long search for her son, who was born out of wedlock at an Irish abbey in the 1950s and adopted by another family when he was just a toddler. The woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), is a simple soul who holds strong to her Catholic faith despite how horribly she was treated by the Church as a young woman (where she is played by Sophie Kennedy Clark). At the behest of her grown daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), she connects with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, continuing his impressive metamorphosis from comic to dramatic actor), a prickly, disgraced BBC reporter, to help track down her son’s whereabouts despite having virtually nothing to go on.

Philomena and Martin are opposites in virtually every sense: interpersonally (she is gentle and forgiving; he is sharp and cynical), religiously (she is devout; he is agnostic and contemptuous of organized religion), and economically (she is solidly lower middle class, easily impressed by material comforts; he is upper class and takes for granted luxury cars and first-class accommodations). While Martin at first shuns the idea of employing his journalistic skills for something as lowly as a “human interest story” like Philomena’s, he is soon drawn into the mystery of her son’s whereabouts, partially because a major publication takes interest in the story, thus offering him a chance at professional redemption (he maintains that his reason for being fired from the BBC is unjustified). His cynicism and distrust of religion is also fired as the story unfolds and it becomes more and more clear that the nuns are hiding dark secrets related to Philomena’s son despite putting on a smile and offering tea and cake. Tracking the clues takes them from Roscrea, the small, rural abbey where Philomena gave birth and was essentially made an indentured servant to “pay off” the costs of keeping her son, to the United States, where they hope to discover the whereabouts of her son’s adoptive family.

(Those wishing to remain completely in the dark about the story’s various second-act twists and turns should probably stop reading now.) Interestingly, the film’s central mystery is effectively solved about halfway through the film: Martin discovers that Philomena’s son was adopted by a wealthy American doctor and his wife, raised in the United States, and became a successful political consultant for the Reagan administration. They also learn that he was gay and died of AIDS seven years earlier, thus seemingly ending the film’s primary narrative drive. However, the mystery doesn’t end because Philomena is determined to find out if her son ever thought of her, which means tracking down his various friends, coworkers, and eventually his longtime partner, Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann).

At every turn it appears that her son lost all memory of her once he was adopted, which causes her no end of pain (her fervent desire to find out if he turned out okay is displaced onto a new desire to know if their mother-son connection survived his adoption). The film’s narrative momentum is also maintained by questions about the role of the abbey and why they had no information about the adoption, which turns out to be a calculated attempt by the nuns to hide their shameful history of using pious condemnation as a means of enslaving pregnant young women discarded by their families and selling their children to Catholic families for thousands of pounds (Peter Mullan’s 2003 film The Magdalene Sisters covers similar ground, but more directly and brutally in its depiction of cruel nuns, inane punishment of female sexuality, and the twisted intertwining of commerce and atoning for sin).

Those looking to vent their rage at organized religion will find plenty of fuel for their fire in Philomena, although the screenplay by Coogan (who also coproduced) and Jeff Pope (Dirty Filthy Love) divides the film’s sympathies nicely between the two main characters, allowing Sixsmith to act as an unapologetic outlet for righteous indignation about the unequivocal abuse inflected in the name of religion, while Philomena acts as a genuinely Christ-like exemplar of the power of forgiveness. For all her “simplicity,” Philomena turns out to be the film’s more intriguing and complicated character, a woman of little education and worldliness who is nevertheless capable of emotional and spiritual feats that leave Sixsmith, with his secular worldview and insistence on worldly justice, confounded.

Chameleonic director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) recognizes that he’s dealing with inherently fascinating material, and for the most part he simply allows Judi Dench and Steve Coogan to drive the film with their constantly shifting but always engaging chemistry; both actors develop their characters in ways that allow us to see their fundamentally antagonistic, yet understandable senses of integrity, which is what allows their relationship to flourish. Frears and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank) are sometimes lured astray by the beauty of the Irish countryside, as in a scene in which they stage a conversation between Philomena and Martin in a beautiful, sun-dappled field for no discernible reason other than the pictorial beauty it offers. Some aspects of the plot and characters are a bit muddled, as well. For example, Philomena’s sudden decision to carry on with the search at a time when everything points to her giving up feels a bit lazy, as does Pete Olsson’s refusal to see them for so long (his character comes across as downright bizarre, and the only explanation is that his unwillingness to help them draws out the plot). As a whole, though, Philomena works quite well (it is Weinstein-produced Oscar bait, after all), both heartbreaking and infuriating as it draws us into a unique mystery whose answers don’t always offer conventional reassurance, yet somehow leave us with a renewed faith in humanity.

Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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