Warm, sobering 'Philomena' is a powerful yarn
05:00 AM, Nov 21, 2013
Philomena (*** out of four; rated PG-13, opening Friday in select cities) will induce sorrow and anger. Smiles, fortunately, are also in the mix.
The tale of a cynical journalist who helps an elderly woman learn what happened to the young son who was taken away from her is compelling, poignant and gently funny. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope and also plays the journalist.
Judi Dench brings the Irish-born Philomena to life with good humor and dignity. It’s a wonderfully memorable performance by one of the acting world’s greats.
Philomena reaches her sunset years needing to unburden herself of a secret that’s been consuming her for half a century.
She had never told the family she later had about the son she gave birth to at 16 and the three years she spent with him in a strict Catholic convent. Forced to give him up for adoption, she has never gotten over the loss. Privately, Philomena has visited the Irish convent inquiring about the sweet boy she named Anthony. She was treated with patronizing courtesy, offered tea, but no empathyand zero information.
After she tearfully spills her story to her adult daughter, on what would be Anthony’s 50th birthday, her daughter connects Philomena with former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). The reporter initially resists what he dismisses as a human interest feature. He’s a political reporter. But, drawn by her sad tale, he spends five years helping Philomena search for her son, sorting through a tangled web of secrets and hidden truths.
Director Stephen Frears compassionately chronicles an emotional personal odyssey and intelligently explores a larger socio-cultural issue. The shame that the Catholic Church imposed on unwed mothers is made palpable. The church in Ireland is also exposed for profiting from the adoptions of these babies.
Only a few plot holes keep the film from greatness. Coogan and Pope tidily adapted the script from Sixsmith’s 2009 book, adding a road trip in which Philomena and Martin travel to the United States. That’s where the most shattering revelations emerge, but it’s also where the film trips up somewhat.
Philomena’s son was adopted along with Mary, a little girl who was his beloved best pal as a toddler. When Philomena encounters Mary (Mare Winningham) as an adult, the film seems to have left some crucial dialogueor perhaps an emotional scene — on the cutting-room floor. We’ve come to know the good-natured, chatty Philomena, and her reaction upon seeing Mary after five decades is uncharacteristically muted.
Otherwise, the story is fascinating and the performances are convincing, with charming chemistry between Coogan and Dench. Philomena is still a devout woman, despite her cruel treatment from severe Irish nuns as a young girl (sensitively played in flashbacks by Sophie Kennedy Clarke). She was bound in a kind of indentured servitude at the convent three years of labor in the convent laundry in exchange for the medical care she and her young son received.
Philomena Lee’s cheery strength and quiet determination is deeply moving. She will not be made into a victim, nor does she lose her abiding faith.
Philomena makes a winning holiday movie, embodying the ideals of what the season is truly about: forgiveness, kindness and goodwill toward one’s fellow man.