Film Review: Philomena

Director Stephen Frears delivers one of his best films since 'The Queen' with this affecting, witty drama starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

When unemployed former BBC correspondent and Labour spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is asked to take on the story of an Irish Catholic woman whose child was sent away by nuns 50 years ago, he answers, “That’s what they call a human-interest story; I don’t do those.” Human-interest stories, he drily explains, are about weak-minded, vulnerable people for weak-minded, vulnerable people. Director Stephen Frears’ Philomena (written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on Sixsmith’s nonfiction account of his and Philomena’s search for her lost son) relishes turning Martin’s smug assessment on its ear. Philomena is as much a sharp exploration of class, sexuality, faith and relationships as it is a wittily written, devastating account of the barbaric treatment of unwed mothers in Ireland as recently as the 1950s, with a plum role for the remarkable Judi Dench.

Dench never simplifies Philomena’s salt-of-the-earthiness. She’s trusting and unworldly, unlike the Oxford-educated, jaded Martin, but never simple. In a very funny and revealing early scene, Philomena fails to get one of Martin’s sarcastic quips, but when her daughter points it out to her, she laughs automatically at his next comment, which is not a joke. It soon becomes clear, however, that Philomena’s good nature and kindness serve her better than Martin’s cynicism and superciliousness. But it takes a team, and a crack reporter like Sixsmith, to uncover the fate of Philomena’s son, Anthony, purposefully hidden by the sisters of the convent of Roscrea in Ireland (whom Martin calls “The Sisters of Little Mercy”), where a teenage Philomena was left by her family to give birth to a baby boy, slave away in their laundries for three years “to pay her debt,” only to watch her little boy drive away with his adoptive parents, without even getting a chance to say goodbye. The early scenes in the convent, with a glowing Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena, recall a slightly less cruel version of The Magdalene Sisters (which is facetiously referred to by Martin at one point), and anchor the loving bond between Philomena and her son.

Framed within a very odd-couple road movie, Philomena and Martin set out in his BMW to Roscrea to learn of Anthony’s whereabouts, or at the very least his new name, only to be told that the records were burned in “the great fire.” Conveniently, however, the nuns had preserved Philomena’s written agreement to relinquish all rights to her son. A devout Roman Catholic who was educated at a convent school, Philomena believed she had sinned when she succumbed to the charms of a young man she met at a county fair (artfully shown in golden-hued flashbacks), even though as a teen she had no idea where babies came from, but after keeping her painful secret for 50 years, she realizes she must learn what has become of her boy. On their travels, which take them to Washington, DC, and back full-circle to the Irish abbey, there’s plenty of time for Martin, a non-believing, former Roman Catholic, to question Philomena’s belief in God and the Church, her forbearance with the nuns and her delight in simple things: romance novels, breakfast buffets, American television.

Coogan delivers his marvelous lines with the comic timing he’s known for, while expressing Martin’s own existential crisis. He’s not afraid of showing Martin’s snobbery to a waiter or Philomena, and his eventual compassion, though expected, is still touching. The film is especially strong in portraying the sometimes devil’s bargain of journalism. To tell more of the plot (though it is in the record) would detract from the pleasures of this movie, but suffice it to say that Anthony’s career crossed paths with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. Philomena is an amazing story, movingly told, which skirts sentimentality and rings true.