Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark and Mare Winningham
Though Philomena is about a journalist writing a human interest story, it is thankfully absent the easy emotional payoff that such stories are often intended to have. That reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), hates the idea of writing a fluff piece, but he’s looking to occupy his time after being canned from a job as a government mouthpiece. (Ironically, that involves quite a bit of fluff).
Director Stephen Frears wastes little screen time before thrusting Sixsmith and the movie’s real protagonist, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), together for the article. Philomena is a cheery old Irish Catholic woman looking to connect with a son that she had out of wedlock. Her family dropped her off at a convent, where she was held in servitude and only allowed to see her son for one hour a day. Then, he was sold to an American family for adoption.
It’s a heavy premise that the script, co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, tackles with a light touch. Philomena is part social drama, but the other parts are buddy and road movie. Sixsmith is an agnostic, bitter journalist doing a story about a gently naive Catholic woman. He begins their relationship with an air of condescension toward her that the movie thankfully doesn’t share, but their bond obviously grows closer during the trip.
What isn’t obvious about this trip is where it takes them, unless of course you read the nonfiction source material published in 2009. (Major spoilers ahead). About halfway through Philomena the fate of her long-lost son is revealed. He was a very successful political aid to the Reagan and Bush administrations. He also lived a life of closeted homosexuality. I say “lived” and “was” because he died during the AIDS crisis of the ’80s.
This revelation makes Philomena the second major release of the year to directly tackle this issue. Unlike Dallas Buyers Club it is periphery in the story, but still acknowledges the political backlash of Reagan’s refusal to act, something that movie failed to do. It’s a bitter irony here considering her son worked for Reagan.
Frears handles the story in a steady, empathetic way. The climax, where Philomena returns to the convent with Martin, is quietly satisfying rather than melodramatic. This scene ends with her forgiving the nuns for their deceit after Martin barges in and tells them how ashamed they should be. He is angrier than her as they uncover the lies and injustice in her story, but it’s here that he realizes that this situation is something he could never fathom.
Forgiveness for Philomena may have been the hardest thing to do. It’s genuine forgiveness, not a way for her to feel superior to the nuns. Misogyny in the Catholic Church made her feel shame for having sex and tore her son away. Had the people at the convent known he was gay, they likely wouldn’t have allowed him to be buried there. Still, she is only looking for truth, not justice. This is something that angers Sixsmith (and likely many viewers) at first but that he gradually understands.
The pain of those lost decades is etched in Judi Dench’s face, but it never feels like she’s a lost soul because of what happened to her. She’s nearing the end of her life, and wanted to settle something she had buried deep in the past. A shot of her standing in the cemetery in the winter and looking down at her son’s grave is devastating but also oddly relieving.
There are times when the script leans too heavily on the “out of touch old lady” schtick with Philomena, but Dench anchors the character despite that. She and Coogan have terrific chemistry, and this gentle foray into drama showcases his range. Frears tells the movie at a brisk pace but never loses sight of the characters or their dynamic. He tells an important story in an often funny and moving way.