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.
Running Time: 1hr 38min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
by Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press
Ask any good chef: Why do some recipes work, while others, with the same ingredients, do not? Ah, but it’s the quality of the ingredients that matters, that chef will probably say.
And so it is with Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” a film whose cinematic recipe seems tricky at best: Take a shocking and tragic tale — a true one, involving the Catholic Church, no less — and make it into a film that’s part serious drama, part jaunty road-buddy movie and part comedy.
Such an unwieldy mix flirts with danger, even tastelessness, but “Philomena” works, thanks to the quality of its ingredients — especially the sensitive and nuanced performances by the ever-superb Judi Dench and by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script.
Director Frears, carefully calibrating the tone here, is in fine form as he tackles a story based on the 2009 investigative book “The Lost Son of Philomena Lee,” by Martin Sixsmith. Lee, who is still alive, is an Irish woman who, as a teenager, became pregnant during a fairground tryst, not even understanding the biology of such things. Rejected at home, she was sent to a convent, where she endured a painful birth — and was told the pain was penance for her sin — then forced to work in the laundry with other “fallen women” for years in virtual imprisonment, allowed to see her son for one hour a day.
Worse yet, the convent sold babies to wealthy Americans; Philomena’s son, Anthony, was carried off one day as a toddler, without so much as a goodbye to his mother.
The movie begins on Anthony’s 50th birthday, with Philomena still desperate to find out what happened to him. Her adult daughter has a chance meeting with Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist who’s just lost his government job amid scandal and is in need of work. At first, Martin, rather an Oxford snob, dismisses the tale as a “human interest” story.
But soon, Martin and Philomena are heading to Washington, D.C., where they make one astonishing discovery after another. And they discover things about each other, too. Philomena, it turns out, is chatty, cheerful and fond of romance novels. Martin is rather abrupt and snooty, and wants his “quiet time.”
Will these opposites find common ground? Uh, have you ever seen a road movie? However, there’s more happening here, thankfully. Philomena, despite her devastating treatment by the church, remains deeply religious and slow to blame the nuns who mistreated her. Martin is cynical about religion, and eager to achieve vindication for Philomena. But is that really what she wants?
Along with its religious, moral and character issues, the film also explores, more subtly, questions of journalistic ethics. The pair’s trip to Washington is paid for by a tabloid keenly interested in the lurid aspects of the tale. But what about Philomena’s privacy? Martin is helping her, of course, but is he exploiting her, too, for a story?
We wouldn’t care about any of this if the performances were weak. But both actors find complexity and depth. Dench is not known for playing weak characters, but she finds a way to imbue a simple, uneducated character with an inner strength and dignity.