Philomena Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope; with Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Barbara Jefford, Mare Winningham
Assessing the positive qualities of “Philomena” requires us to consider what the movie might have become had it not been made by intelligent people, who knew how to strike a balance between its materials: producer and co-star Steve Coogan, who also adapted Martin Sixsmith’s book together with Jeff Pope; and director Stephen Frears, whose diverse oeuvre includes “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters” and “The Queen.” If not for Coogan, Pope and Frears’ focused work, along with Judi Dench’s lead performance, “Philomena” – which is based on a true story – might have been a simplistic, sentimental, cloying film. Instead, it has a certain emotional immediacy and even dryness tinged with humor; not only do these not diminish the movie’s sharpness and poignancy, but they actually increase it.
Irish-Catholic Philomena Lee, a sexually inexperienced and uninformed teen, finds herself pregnant in 1952, following a chance encounter with a young man at a fair (the young Philomena is played by Sophie Kennedy Clark). Like other “fallen” girls of her time, she is sent to a convent run by a strict group of nuns, who show not the least bit of compassion for the young women under their care. At the convent she gives birth to her son, Anthony, whom she is allowed to see for one hour a day. In exchange for the services she has received, she must pay off her debt in backbreaking work at the convent laundry. When Anthony is three, he is given up for adoption to an American couple in exchange for 1,000 pounds. Philomena, obedient by nature and unshaken in her religious faith despite her horrible treatment by the Catholic establishment, has no way of knowing what happened to him, since she signed a document in which she promised never to look for him.
Half a century later, the story attracts the attention of Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a former BBC reporter who also served as director of communications under Prime Minister Tony Blair. Having lost his job, he now works for a daily paper that requires him to write human-interest stories. After learning of what happened to Philomena – one of numerous unwed young mothers who were sent to convents for many years and had their children taken away from them – he reluctantly pursues the topic. Philomena, for her part, is also uncertain whether to cooperate with him, haunted though she might be by her lost son and her desire to find out what happened to him. Sixsmith finally gives into the demands of his editor, and he and Philomena embark on a quest to find Anthony. The journey takes these two unlikely partners – a radiant elderly Irish woman who likes romance novels, and a bitter, cynical, educated atheist – from Ireland to the United States and back. It is a journey of discoveries, though these do not add up to the narrative we might expect.
“Philomena” is not the kind of full-frontal assault on the Catholic Church that Peter Mullan, for example, presented in his 2002 “The Magdalene Sisters,” which depicted a similar reality. This is because Frears’ movie was made in the image of its heroine, who has a sympathetic ability to accept and even forgive what was done to her. And yet it is no less powerful in its depiction of the Church’s wrongdoing, then as well as now. Just as Philomena does not try to turn her life story into a melodramatic tearjerker, Frears, too, directs the film simply, at times too simply. He makes the story unfold directly, and with the exception of a single, early scene in which young Philomena sees her son being taken away, he tries to tone down the dramatic angles. The screenplay sometimes jumps ahead too fast, leaving holes in the plot.
This is not a particularly interesting movie from a filmmaking perspective; the story and its two heroes are the focus, and they are usually enough to make up for the humdrum way in which Frears follows their experiences. Coogan, famous mainly as a sophisticated kind of comedian, gives an excellent performance, and Judi Dench is Judi Dench: she is as good and precise as always, even if I did occasionally wonder whether a less well known and unique actress, one whose every move did not express such canny intelligence, might have served the character better.
“Philomena” has an ideological level that adds richness to it, such as the analogy it draws between the Catholic Church’s treatment of young female transgressors and the attitude of American society toward the AIDS epidemic when it first broke out. Even this part of the movie is presented without being too blatant in its agenda, and that, perhaps, is the film’s greatest virtue: Despite the heartrending drama it depicts, “Philomena” is a modest, low-key work, whose qualities express respect toward the story and its heroine.