The affecting true story of a mother who went searching for the son who was taken from her when she was a young woman. The British film Philomena is how former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) helped a poor Irish woman (Judi Dench, as the title character Philomena Lee) locate the whereabouts of her long lost son, who had relocated to America. The praises are already being sung for Dench’s portrayal of a slightly gullible but endearingly polite old dame. But I don’t think the film would be half as good without Coogan as the say-anything quipster who keeps this film from becoming strictly sanctimonious – he’s a prick at first about this “human interest” fluff until he realizes what an important story he’s backed himself into. Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) directs with a confident hand, unobtrusive and unflashy.
The first stop on the road together for Martin and Philomena is the old convent, where they learn that papers were unfortunately burned in a fire that had the key to what happened to Philomena’s son. How convenient, Martin thinks aloud, that those papers would be burned and yet papers of Philomena’s signed contract of when she was 17-years old abandoning her rights to claim are still in crisp tact by the nuns. Then there’s a picture of luscious old-time movie star Jane Russell on the nun’s wall. Word has it Russell had “bought” children for a 1,000 pounds apiece back in the day. This practice was one of the Church’s most dependable incomes.
Clues take Martin and Philomena to Washington, D.C. in search of Michael, who, err, became a Reagan administration campaigner named Anthony. Here the movie is moving forward, and yet the flashback stuff has all the juicy interest. Philomena talks candidly of how she was seduced at a young age, how much she adored sex with a strange boy she had met but honestly did not know that it caused pregnancy, how she was an indentured servant in the laundry facilities in the nun’s house with no days off, and how she was only allowed to see her son for one hour a day when he was born. She was not braced with any warning on the day her son was taken away permanently from her.
There comes the dawning of who Anthony became, how he contracted AIDS, had a gay lover, and yes, made attempts to locate mom, too, having visited the same convent. Did the fact that he was gay dent any love Mom had for him? No, Philomena loved him and maybe more, even if the disease took him to the afterlife. There is a touching scene of Philomena watching old videos of Anthony’s life, and Dench plays it beautifully alert and rapt in her child’s moments.
As for me, I loved the big questions that Coogan (who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope) boldly asked in the face of Catholic hypocrisy. “Philomena” is a heart-tugger for all the obvious reasons, but it’s another example to me from my film experience that these kinds of nuns, to me, are among the most callous and coldhearted dehumanized beings of the middle twentieth century. Coogan uses the word “evil” more than once to describe them and some more creative and descriptive words, too.
95 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / TEARJERKER / FALL MOVIE