In "Philomena," Judi Dench’s portrayal of a stubborn, kindhearted Irish Catholic trying to discover what became of the toddler she was forced to give up as a teenager is so quietly moving that it feels lit from within.
A major theme of this film from Stephen Frears is forgiveness. Dench’s Philomena Lee glows with the radiance of someone serene in her faith despite inhumane treatment by the church. That she makes you believe her character has the capacity to forgive provides the movie with a solid moral center.
Dench’s dignified performance and the screenplay — adapted by her co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 nonfiction book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" — stabilize a volatile blend of ingredients. In less confident hands, the film could have been a mawkish, rambling tear-jerker.
"Philomena" has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anti-clerical screed and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety. It also has a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church’s oppression and punishment of unmarried sex — what the convent’s harsh mother superior denounces as "carnal incontinence" — with homophobia and the U.S. government’s reluctance to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Philomena recalls sensing that her son, even when he was a tot, would grow up to be gay.
Dench, who is more accustomed to playing cool, imperious matriarchs than twinkling little old ladies, knows exactly how far to push the inherent cuteness of her role without it curdling into shtick. Her Philomena, for all her surface prudishness, shyly admits to having happy, guilt-free memories of the liaison that got her in trouble. Even more surprisingly, she professes a matter-of-fact acceptance of homosexuality. Her equanimity on the subject may be a little far-fetched given her age and background, but her independent spirit suggests that such an attitude is not beyond the realm of possibility.
The teenage Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) becomes pregnant in 1952 and is sent to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland. She spends several years in virtual slave labor, working in the convent laundry. It is part punishment and part compensation to the nuns who looked after her during childbirth. These prisonlike convent laundries, where shamed parents exiled their "bad" daughters, were the subject of Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, "The Magdalene Sisters," and of a Joni Mitchell song.
The girls are allowed to see their children only one hour a day, and Philomena is forced to sign a contract agreeing never to inquire into her son’s whereabouts. In the film’s most anguished scene, she is beside herself as she watches from a convent window as the child, Anthony, is whisked away in a car by a wealthy American couple. The 3-year-old boy had been sold for 1,000 pounds.
Fifty years later Philomena, in her 70s, meets Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a one-time BBC foreign correspondent who was later ousted as a spin doctor in Tony Blair’s government and is now obliged to support himself with freelance journalism assignments. Martin, a cynic and an atheist, persuades an initially reluctant Philomena to cooperate with him on a magazine article telling her story. When they visit the convent, they are coldly informed that all records from the time were destroyed in a fire.
The film widens its focus when Martin’s sleuthing reveals the probable whereabouts of Anthony, who worked for the Reagan administration. Philomena insists on accompanying Martin when he flies to Washington.
The movie can’t resist finding comedy in this unlikely team.
Philomena, a devotee of romance novels, tries Martin’s patience by relaying the plots of the novels she reads. Instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, she would rather watch the movie "Big Momma’s House" on television at the hotel. Martin is arrogant, bordering on boorish in his pursuit of the story, and Coogan does an impressive job of muting his comedian’s instincts to paint him as intimidatingly brusque.
Even through improbable moments and abrupt changes of pace and tone, Dench and Coogan hold the movie together and pull forward a story that ends where it began. In giving equal weight to Martin’s skepticism and Philomena’s faith, it manages to have its cake and eat it, too.
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times