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Movie Review: 'Philomena' (2013) Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

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Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has been wrongfully terminated (forced to resign) from his longtime job as a spin-doctor for the BBC News, and suffers from corresponding depression. He’s thought of writing a book on Russian history, but finding enthusiasm from his family and colleagues on the notion has been expectedly difficult. Meanwhile, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman praying in church, has been dwelling on painful memories of her youth at an abbey. She was carelessly impregnated by a stranger at a fair, having no schooling or knowledge on men and pregnancies, and is disowned by her unforgiving family and sent to the Roscrea Abbey. Young Philomena (played by Sophie Kennedy Clark) is callously cared for by heartless nuns who put her to work for four years in the laundry as payment for taking her in. She’s only allowed to see her child for a few hours a day and, while still an infant, little Anthony Lee is sold to an unknown family in America.

On what would be Anthony’s 50th birthday, Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) requests that Martin help the woman find out what has happened to her long lost child. It’s a human interest story, which Martin doesn’t initially fancy, but the following morning he decides to meet with Philomena nonetheless. They depart for the abbey as a starting point but must eventually travel to the United States to meet with adoption agency contacts and to acquire documentation that will lead to a highly anticipated discovery.

So much time has passed that Anthony’s life is surely to have been thoroughly lived. There’s a believable, sensible reason for Philomena’s silence over the years and her sudden passion for uncovering history and achieving closure, but the organization of relationships and coincidences appear succinct and tidy. It’s a brooding mystery that focuses more on studying characters than unearthing clues, with an exploration of the significance of lineage, heritage, and familial ties as influenced by shame, deception, and persistent unexpectedness. Coogan and Dench exchange curious stories, cynical remarks, poignant observations on humanity, humorous commentary, and conversations on Anthony’s potential whereabouts and condition (Philomena worries about the possibility of her son having died in Vietnam, becoming a drug addict, or getting obese). They balance sweet remarks with bitter insults, especially as they recognize their differing opinions on justice, religion, and forgiveness. The two make for a very compelling pair of sleuths.

Coogan’s investigative reporter is inspiringly amusing, snooping about like a comical Sherlock Holmes, facing opponents shrouded in secrecy, and even jumping through seemingly conspiratorial legal hoops. Records are lost in a fire, nuns who would have had information are either senile or not well enough for a visitor, and a bumptious editor insists upon manipulative storytelling over emotional wellbeing. In the background is some wondrously sensitive music by Alexandre Desplat, which demands extra attention over the only occasionally moving pieces of the plot. Gravitating away from the oftentimes outright fiction of the phrase “based on a true story,” “Philomena” instead opens with the increasingly popular line, “Inspired by true events,” and manages to convey a “you can’t make this stuff up” tale of tragedy and drama that showcases sensational performances, clever scripting, and a pleasantly satisfactory resolution.

- The Massie Twins

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