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Film review: Philomena: More to Dame Judi Dench than PBS shows us

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When the credits rolled at the end of the British film, Philomena, the entire audience at yesterday's Sunday matinee sat still. No cell phones were reactivated and no one stood up. No one put on an overcoat or parka.

The audience was heavily comprised of those over sixty and most of them were women, some of whom came in small groups of four or six—book clubs, maybe. The good-natured chatter before the movie was expected, but the silence after it was deafening.

Philomena is based on the true story of a BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who after losing his job, takes on a human interest story of the kind he has always rejected as just too sappy. At social gatherings, he tells people who ask the inevitable question, “What are you going to do now?” with a just as inevitable veer toward the more academic, “Writing a book about Russian history.”

As it happens, he has since written several volumes about Russian history, but not before tackling this iceberg of a story. What lurks below is ten times what is available to the casual observer.

Dame Judi Dench portrays Philomena Lee as unpretentious and a bit naïve. She takes Sixsmith to dinner at a neighborhood place where she determinedly scoops two huge helpings of croutons onto her salad bar fixings; prattles on in the airport about the plot of a minor novel she is reading; and strikes up a long conversation with a server when Sixsmith rather brusquely reminds her he is on the computer trying to find her missing son.

But when Sixsmith gets his foot shut in the doorway by a not so happy interviewee, Philomena gets out of the car, marches to the door, and with the same determination that she used piling croutons on her salad, dishes up the interview.

The film shows to advantage the work of an investigative reporter: the necessary grit and the editor who has the right to give the go-ahead or not and who values whatever grisly details will attract readers no matter what the outcome for Philomena.

On the part of the reporter, though, there is another sort of plot development. He becomes protective of Philomena to the extent that he says he is her son when she doesn’t answer his knock on her hotel room and he needs to get security to unlock the door.

Aside from Judi Dench in her prime still and the steady supporting role played by Steve Coogan, there is the real convent of astonishingly merciless nuns in 1950’s Ireland who, under a thin veneer of taking in "wayward" girls, delivered their babies and then sold them to adoptive parents in the US. Even more astonishing, they prevented both child and mother from finding each other by actively withholding information they both had and knew, even when asked and even into adulthood.

The link between Sixsmith and Philomena’s missing son is a bit mind-bending, also. Sixsmith, who had been a political reporter, realizes from online photos that he had actually met her son, who had been a top aide to President Reagan.

This film begins as the rather ordinary story that a jaded Sixsmith suspected would be a trite excursion into “chick lit.” But it ends as an extraordinary expose of the folly of superstition and ignorance. Sixsmith wrote the results of his investigation as a book, published in 2009, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

The film was directed by Stephen Frears. It was awarded the People’s Choice Award Runner-Up Prize at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Written jointly by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it also won the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival.

Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column.

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