“Philomena” is a small film with a gigantic story to tell…one with twists and turns, containing unspeakable meanness that is hard to comprehend, but unfortunately is very real. Directed by Stephen Frears, with screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, the movie is based on Martin Sixsmith’s book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
“Philomena” is the true story of Philomena Lee’s and Martin Sixsmith‘s search to find her son, “given up” for adoption many years ago. The film begins in Philomena’s home in England as she remembers her early years in flashbacks. Over a glass of wine, Philomena (Judi Dench) reveals to her daughter her never-before-told secret…that she had a son out-of-wedlock and this day would be his 50th birthday. She tells her daughter how over the years she searched in vain for him. A chance encounter with well-known journalist Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) gives her daughter the opportunity to tell a little bit of the story to him, and she asks if he will help her mother find her long-lost son. But Sixsmith is a poo–pooer of human interest stories and initially dismisses the idea. Later, upon further thought, he meets with Philomena and decides her story might be worth pursuing…more importantly, his editor thinks it’s worth doing. From Philomena he learns her back story…how she became pregnant at a young age and was sent to a country convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary, Ireland,where in 1952 she gave birth to a boy she named Anthony. She describes the harsh conditions the women in the convent endured…how they were treated like slave labor. She also informs him that the women were forced to sign papers allowing the convent to take their children away from them, selling the children for adoption. Upon some initial research, Sixsmith discovers that her son was adopted by Americans. He and Philomena fly to the U.S., hoping for answers that will lead her to her son.
Although an extremely serious movie, the screenwriters have wisely imbued the film with some humor. Philomena’s reaction to America and Americans is very funny and the give and take between Philomena and Sixsmith is witty and feels real. In a dramatic turn, Steve Coogan is a wonderful, unexpected surprise as Sixsmith. He more than holds his own with Dench and his portrayal of the hard-nose reporter caring about Philomena in spite of himself seems quite genuine.
What can one say regarding Judi Dench that hasn’t already been said? “Philomena” may be one of her best performances ever. Perhaps her most affecting scene is when she is in the confessional and can’t say anything. She expresses more with her face than many actors say with ten pages of dialogue. She is simply astounding. And watch her hands throughout. They, too, convey so much.
An earlier film, “The Magdalene Sisters,” written and directed by Peter Mullan, told the true story of teen-age girls sent to Magdalene Asylums, homes maintained by various churches in Ireland for women like Philomena. It forcefully showed the abysmal treatment the women received. In some respect that film lays the groundwork for “Philomena.” That Philomena and others like her managed to make lives for themselves in spite of their hard youth says something about their tremendous spirit.
“Philomena” is not an easy movie and it will make you angry, but is so worth your time…for the performances and the story.