Is it possible to find answers to a long suppressed secret that not many want to help find the answers to? What happens when the truth wasn't entirely as ideal as you originally thought? Do you still keep looking or ignore the facts once and for all? That's part of the premise behind the DVD release of "Philomena," which showcased one woman's decades long quest for answers. Sure, the story may be familiar, but the performances made it worth watching again.
"Philomena" followed the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) who lived a quiet life as she devoted herself to God, but she was still pained with a long buried secret that she gave birth to a son as a teenager in 1952. She ended up having a brief affair with a man that left her with child and her family sending her away to avoid the shame. For three years, she was forced to live and work at a catholic home for unmarried mothers who instilled in Philomena a strong sense of guilt that she never got over many decades later. Philomena was forced to unwillingly give up the son she loved to be sold to an American family for adoption. She recruited the help of disgraced British journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to help find her long lost son. Initially, he dismissed the idea as he secretly hoped to be rehired at his previous job when in reality that was never going to happen. Sixsmith decided to help Philomena, even though their differences threatened to derail everything. His cynical outlook and lack of faith forced him to see the world through Philomena's eyes, even when it bothered him to do so. Sixsmith and Philomena traveled to America for answers, which led them to her son's adoptive sister Mary (Mare Winningham) that life wasn't entirely perfect for her son. The duo also found out that her son's name was now Michael Hess and that he became a political power play in Washington. He also lived life as a very closeted gay man who ended up dying of AIDS years earlier. A pivotal visit with Michael's former partner Pete (Peter Hermann) revealed a shocking truth that could change everything for better or worse if both Philomena and Sixsmith as they chose to make their next move. Will Philomena get the closure she desperately needed?
In terms of questions, the movie posed a few valuable ones that would even the most religiously devout question their faith when the church seemed to push their own moral beliefs on naive teenagers in a time period where morality was sacred. Is it possible to forgive the unforgivable and still move on with your life? The story appeared to make it acceptable to forgive those who wronged you, but will never admit to doing anything wrong in the first place. The only surviving nun from Philomena's days at the home would never say that she was sorry, but the character needed to accept the past in order to embrace what was left of her future. The film also made wise use of Philomena's flashback scenes without taking away from the current story, such as the scene when Philomena was remembering her final moments with her son before he was taken away from her. It was a heartbreaking scene for everyone to watch, because no mother would ever want to be lose their child, especially under questionable circumstances. The overall story worked for the most part due to the film's breezy pace that made viewers feel like they were on the road trip with Philomena and Sixsmith rather than on the sidelines waiting for something to happen. Sure, it was a shame that this real life story didn't have an ideal happy ending, but the movie handled the twist with such care as it still continued on in a different direction. Ultimately, the story worked in delivered a strong emotional story, except that the ending should've been a little longer and a little more definitive in its conclusion.
As for breakout performances, Coogan and Dench led the pack as their characters were basically the centerpiece of the entire film. Coogan's Martin was a huge departure from his regular film roles where he usually played goofier comedic characters. He made a lot more cynical and a lot quieter as he proved to be the straight man to Dench's sparkling character. Coogan worked a fine balance of strong dramatic moments and some fairly comedic ones as well without going too over the top. His most memorable scenes often came when his character ultimately lost complete control of his emotions. One pivotal scene came when Coogan's Martin struggled with pulling the plug on writing Philomena's story after the news of Michael's death was revealed. He expressed the character's moral dilemma with quiet looks of shock, sadness and frustration for himself and his subject. Another scene came towards the end when he confronted the nun that hid the truth from Philomena for far too long. Coogan's Martin let his feelings be known to the nun and revealed that he wouldn't be able to forgive her. Dench, on the other hand, proved to be up to the task of bringing to life Philomena's complex story. She embodied with a sense of joy and youthful wonder that was filled with great sadness over a terrible time in her life. She made the character relatable as she struggled to find closure when no one was fully willing to give it. Dench deserved getting an Oscar nomination for the part because she provided her character with the right amount of emotional complexity and compassion that made the movie worth watching from start to finish. Let's hope that Dench and Coogan get the chance to work together again, because they had a strong on-screen dynamic that could work if the story was right.
Verdict: Dench delivered a touching performance that made viewers fall in love with her character, but the story was left with a slightly flat ending.
DVD Score: 3 out of 5 stars
Movie Rating: PG-13
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)