A mindful and mostly well refined look into the nature of moral and ethical contracts, Stephen Frears’ Philomena tackles issues of Catholic guilt and personal redemption quite nicely thanks to a sharp script from co-star and co-writer Steve Coogan and a perfectly cast Judi Dench in the lead.
Inspired by the true story of its titular protagonist’s search for closure, the film follows disgraced former BBC journalist and ex-Tony Blair adviser Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) just after he’s been sacked. Unsure of what direction to go in next and finding it hard to secure work, he reluctantly decides to write a human interest piece for a magazine he thinks is beneath him. Martin is introduced to Philomena Lee (Dench), a septuagenarian Irishwoman who was brought up in a covenant in Rosecrea. As a teenager she became pregnant, drawing the ire of the nuns in charge. When her son was only three years old, he was taken from her and outright sold to an American family. Martin agrees to travel with the kindly, but obviously shaken older woman to try and track down the son she hasn’t seen in decades.
While sometimes succumbing to a sense of pacing that obviously speeds up certain aspects of the actual events and occasionally using maudlin, out of place flashback videos and super-8 film footage of her son growing up that none of these characters ever would have seen, Frears largely keeps things unsentimental. He’s clearly far more invested in the journalistic aspects of the story than the crowd pleasing aspects of Lee’s trials. Aside from those few stumbles into movie of the week melodrama that feel placed in there because of some kind of studio demand to soften things up a bit, it’s a pretty straight faced culture clash story that allows Coogan and Dench to create a natural chemistry rather than forcing them to mug and grandstand.
Playing the reluctant and often angered atheist to Dench’s eternally faithful optimist under stress, Coogan delivers his best non-comedic performance yet. Martin isn’t an incredibly likeable guy, often finding ways to assert his moral superiority over those around him, but he’s slowly regaining the conscience that he gave up a long time ago. His sarcastic ways of dealing with things makes the genuine and affable Philomena a perfect foil. As the story takes them deeper and deeper into Lee’s past, a Catholic Church cover-up, and a mid-point twist that will alter the trip and his story immeasurably, Coogan gradually starts playing Martin as someone growing even more skeptical, but also more emotionally invested. A simple sequence during a key scene where Martin has to deliver bad news to Philomena over a hotel buffet breakfast is heart wrenching because of how Coogan plays a man who has no clue how to drop a bombshell on this sweet old lady.
Dench always puts in fine work, and her performance here is no exception. Philomena has allowed her life to be run entirely on the power of faith, but has never in her 70+ years questioned the weight of her own guilt. She was told to believe that she was unworthy in the eyes of God, and has spent most of her adult life in a constant state of atonement for something Martin constantly tells her she has no reason to be sorry for. Disowned by her own family when she was young and constantly lied to when she tries to get information about her son, Dench shows traces of how she could have remained cold and bitter, but how instead she chooses to live a happy life in the face of hardship and a great injustice.
It certainly doesn’t rank highly when placed alongside some of Frears’ best known successes, but it’s a solid enough work for hire effort. It’s positioned as Oscar bait and serves its purpose accordingly without constantly bludgeoning the audience over the head with grandstanding emotional moments. It might not be a cause for celebration for anyone other than Coogan, but it assuredly works as a fine Sunday matinee outing.