Review: Philomena



Some aspects of Philomena can be the stuff of films that critics loathe: It's a crowd pleaser, the central characters are borderline cinematic clichés, they form an unlikely friendship (I wish there were more films about unlikely animosities), and the story's morality isn't complicated.

But thanks to a smart, funny script, a likeable vibe, direction by the esteemed Stephen Frears and superb performances by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena avoids all these potential pitfalls. It's a great movie that may be a hit with audiences for all the right reasons.

Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film is based on the true story of the titular Philomena (Dench), an Irish woman who spends nearly 50 years wondering what became of her long-lost son. As a teenager in 1952, she becomes pregnant and, like many "fallen" girls and women in Catholic-dominated Ireland, is sent away to a convent. After she gives birth, the proudly cruel nuns force her to sign away her parental rights to the baby, Anthony, who lives with her at the convent until he's adopted at age three. Knowing nothing about Anthony's adoptive parents, Philomena loses touch with him.

In 2002, Philomena meets unemployed journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) and suggests he write a human interest story about her desire to find Anthony. Cynical and somewhat arrogant, Martin is a longtime political reporter and advisor; at first he has no interest in what he considers a fluff piece, but grudgingly agrees to write the story for lack of any other work.

The two begin their search for Anthony at the convent, where the present-day nuns are sympathetic but have no information; the adoption records were lost in a fire. Philomena and Martin hear rumors, however, that the convent's adoptions were purely mercenary -- the nuns sold children to American couples. Thanks to the Internet and Martin's contacts in the U.S., Philomena and Martin find Anthony's adoption records and head for America to search for him.

The rest of Philomena is a story of journalistic sleuthing and discovery, with many surprising revelations and twists as Martin and Philomena search for her son. Along the way -- yeah, here's the unlikely friendship part -- they grow to like each other despite having almost nothing in common except a mutual interest in Anthony's fate. The journalist in Martin finds the story ever more tantalizing; the occasionally compassionate human in him learns to respect the sweet but unsophisticated Philomena for her inner strength and tolerant attitude. Philomena finds Martin's cosmopolitan world perplexing, but she appreciates his help and has enough insight to know he's fighting plenty of inner battles.

Philomena is a drama with infuriatingly serious themes, but often a damn funny one. Martin expresses his endless frustration with droll and sometimes mean humor. Philomena's uncultured but always open-minded world view leads to hilariously awkward moments, such as when she tells a Mexican omelet cook that she believes Mexico "is lovely, apart from the kidnappings." The film also takes plenty of pithy, well deserved potshots at the Catholic Church; devout followers of the faith may take offense at all the blasphemy, but then Philomena isn't really a film for the devout.

The role of Philomena is somewhat of a departure for Dench -- an ordinary woman in every sense, from her frumpy clothes to her boring life to the simple pleasure she gets from romance novels. But Dench is meant for the role (isn't she always?), entirely comfortable with who she is, excitedly babbling on about the mindless plot of a novel she's reading, and confronting unpleasant realities with a stiff backbone and an endless capacity for forgiveness. (The power of forgiveness is the film's essential point.) Philomena may be too small a film to earn Dench an Oscar nod, but she's certainly deserving.

Coogan's role is also a departure. Martin cracks wise like most of Coogan's characters, but his backstory is far more serious, and his humor stems from deep dissatisfaction with the world and himself. Martin is grumpy, but not in Coogan's usual charming, winking way -- he's just unpleasant and impatient, as if he hasn't the time to bother with the likes of Philomena, at least until her story has the potential to rescue his career. He softens and grows as the story progresses, but only to a believable extent; Philomena is too sharp a film to allow any miraculous transformations. (Coogan co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope and does a fine job of keeping Philomena believable.)

Philomena has won nearly a dozen film festival awards, including a whopping nine at the Venice Film Festival. This isn't surprising for such a pedigreed, appealing and moving film that makes plenty of serious points with great humor. It deserves just as much success in its theatrical release.