In the early scenes of “Philomena” (2013) we learn that recently fired former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), isn’t interested in doing “human interest” stories. Fortunately (both in real life and in the movie), he changes his mind and teams with Philomena (Judi Dench), an Irish woman who was forced to give up her son fifty years earlier by the roman Catholic Church as “penance for the sin of fornication”. Together, this unlikely pair begin an emotional, heart-wrenching journey to learn the answer to Philomena’s daily question to herself, “Did my son ever think of me?”
To begin their investigative journey they travel to the convent where Philomena birthed her son, and was then forced to work as an indentured servant. Philomena has been here before, but without gaining any clues as to her son’s whereabouts. The nuns, although polite, tell her there was a fire years before, destroying all of their documents. In addition to the lack of information that they are willing to share, the idea of a journalist being involved makes them even colder (if that is at all possible). Feeling that this path is a dead-end, Martin decides to use his former contacts in the United States to help, after learning that many of these children were adopted by Americans.
Together, Philomena and Martin travel to Washington D.C. and continue to search, constantly bonding as they attempt to discover his whereabouts. But that is not all that’s going on in this film. It would be easy to say that “Philomena” is a movie about one woman’s life-long search for her lost child, but really there is much more at play. This is a film about forgiveness- about living with ourselves and the decisions that we make. Philomena and Martin are polar opposites. They live their lives differently, look at the world differently, and begin each day with completely independent trains of thought. I doubt there are many subjects on which they would agree, at least in the beginning. This movie is just as much about their journey and relationship together as it is about Philomena’s search for her son… and that is why the film works so well. Director Stephen Frears is able to combine the two sides of his movie together beautifully, keeping things moving quickly and efficiently. In fact, he may have moved a bit too quickly. At times the film can seem rushed, with certain aspects being hurried through or glossed over. Perhaps dwelling on some of the more unpleasant aspects would have brought the mood of the plot down a notch, leaving the audience with more of a depressing story, which obviously wouldn’t have been the way Philomena would want it to play out- she would prefer to focus on the positives, spending more time smiling.
Enter Steve Coogan, along with co-screenwriter Jeff Pope. Together their screenplay, based on Martin Sixsmith’s book, “The Lost Child of Philomena”, gives its characters and the audience plenty of reasons to smile. The brilliant dialogue holds its audiences attention, and keeps things moving with a somewhat unusual combination of laughs and tears. Of course having Coogan as both screenwriter and leading actor doesn’t hurt either. It is some of his best film work to date, and his performance is as real as they come. Typically I wouldn’t have expected this kind of performance from him, but from here on out I will.
And then there’s Judi Dench. Despite Coogan’s strong performance, it is Judi Dench who steals the show. We all know that her talents as an actress are unlimited, but in “Philomena” she plays a much different role than usual, and perhaps that is what makes it so special. There is an emotional depth to Dench’s portrayal of Philomena that is heartbreaking to watch, and an eternal hopefulness and positivity that is inspiring to witness and encouraging to replicate. “Philomena” is not a huge-budgeted, in-your-face extravaganza of a picture. It is subtle, delightful, and heart-warming. Just as I am sure the real life Philomena is herself.