Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Mare Winningham, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
20th Century Fox
"Philomena" Works and Doesn't Work in Equal Parts
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a retired working glass Irish nurse when the film built around her story, Philomena, really kicks off. Having become pregnant out of wedlock in the 1950's, Philomena was, as was often the case for teenage girls in Ireland at the time, sent to a convent where she gave birth and worked in what amounted to slave labor while seeing her son, Anthony, for one hour per day through his first three years of life.
At the age of 3, Anthony was sold into adoption with an American family and Philomena's life went on. It is now years later and Philomena, perhaps still wrestling with that part of her past, has become curious about her son's whereabouts. Her story became known to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), an ex-BBC reporter and disgraced wordsmith attempting to spin his way back into serious journalism. Philomena, largely based upon Sixsmith's book and co-written by both Coogan and Jeff Pope, is in many ways as much a road picture as it is a story about Philomena's search for her son. The coupling, in a chaste sense, of Martin and Philomena certainly has its comic elements though it's difficult to understand why 20th Century Fox has chosen to market the film as a "highly acclaimed new comedy" from Stephen Frears." It seems a tad insensitive, I suppose, given the seriousness of everything that goes on in the film and for anyone with enough familiarity to know that this was far from a one-time occurrence in Ireland but, in fact, one example of a years-long and shameful history of institutionalized abuse within the nation. The two aren't particularly well matched as travel partners, though Coogan's portrayal is for the most part restrained while Dench's is never less than fully engaging. When the two head for America, Philomena somewhat loses its grip and becomes far too much about the road and not nearly enough about the actual story.
Placed firmly in the hands of Ms. Dench, Philomena still very nearly sores. Dench gives a fully developed and compassionate performance as a woman who steadfastly refuses to give up in her endeavor to discover the truth, but the film also doesn't completely dismiss her still strong Catholic roots that refuse to simply lay blame at the hands of the nuns who were simply part of a bigger institution. While Coogan and Pope have infused the film with at least a semblance of questioning the church's actions and responses to what unfolded, it's a little bit jarring that what could have been written with such universality, and should have been, instead ignores the wider picture as represented in such films as, for example, The Magdalene Sisters. There have been those, as well, who've considered the film's script as unnecessarily pointed exclusively towards the Catholic Church when, in fact, there were Protestant churches participating in this very same practice.
Regardless of how you feel about the politics of Philomena, one simply must acknowledge that it features a deeply felt and gripping performance from Judi Dench and a supporting performance from Mare Winningham that reminds you, once again, just how wonderful this criminally underappreciated actress has been throughout her career. While the film's subject matter is quite serious, Coogan and Pope and director Stephen Frears have managed to make a rather unpalatable story once that will resonate, inspire and inform.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic