Philomena is one of those “based on a true story” movies that seem to flood theaters at the end of the year. The majority of them are Oscar-ready, and Philomena is no different. After all, it features Dame Judi Dench as an elderly Irish woman on a quest to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. Can’t get more Oscar “for your consideration” than that, right? Steve Coogan costars as the cynical journalist who agrees to help her out, hopefully resulting in a “human interest story” that might get him back into print after a political and journalistic scandal.
I’ll admit I didn’t have high hopes going into the movie, which is ironic since I basically had the same shortsighted misgivings Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith has when the story is first pitched to him. To Sixsmith, human interest stories are simple tales about “weak-minded and ignorant people,” written for the same weak-minded and ignorant people to read.
But almost as quickly as Sixsmith changes his mind about writing Philomena’s story (and it’s pretty quick indeed), I knew the movie was going to be better than mere sappy Oscar bait. And it’s thanks to Dench and Coogan that it is.
Judi Dench’s Philomena is an Irish Catholic who still attends church, goes to confession, and suffers the guilt of her youthful indiscretion. As a teenager she gots pregnant, and her father sent her to a convent where she gives birth, (in a breech delivery, without painkillers), and then has to work seven days a week in the laundry room to “atone” for her sin. Her son is given up for adoption, and Philomena was never allowed to say goodbye, or learn anything about her child’s adopted family.
It turns out hers is an all-to-common story, as Catholic organizations in Ireland were basically selling the children of unwed mothers for decades, all under the blessing of the Catholic church.
Dench plays Philomena as simple, on the surface–with a love of romance novels, salad bars, and the amenities found in your average hotel room–but just below, she’s full of contradictions, and is much more worldly than either the audience or Sixsmith suspects.
Steve Coogan co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film, and he was smart to recognize how his comedic presence would help balance a movie that could easily fall into maudlin territory. His droll sense of humor plays perfectly against Dench’s wide-eyed whimsy.
If I’m being vague about the details of their journey to find Philomena’s son–which eventually takes them to America–it’s because the story takes a lot of unexpected turns, and the surprises are worth keeping under wraps. But I will say it is at times very sad, but is tempered by some genuine moments of comedy. Sure, some of those are the kinds of laughs you’d expect from an “old lady and younger guy go on a road trip together” scenario. But the better laughs come from Philomena and the unexpected revelations of her character.
If there’s one area the story falters, it’s when Sixsmith stands firmly in his atheist shoes, mocking Philomena’s steadfast faith in the face of utter evil and hypocrisy in the Catholic church. Unsurprisingly, the San Francisco audience I viewed it with clapped any time Martin cut down the church. But they were silent when Philomena demonstrates an amazing moment of forgiveness.
Make no mistake, the so-called Catholics Philomena had to deal with were evil. But Philomena is living proof that amazing grace can still be found within the realms of religious faith.