Judi Dench plays the title role in “Philomena” with her usual authenticity, which is reason enough to see it, but there are so many more.
The film grapples with moral and ethical issues — misdeeds of Ireland’s Catholic Church, varieties of sexual repression, journalistic cynicism — while maintaining a rollicking sense of humor. It’s a real-life story (based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”) dramatized in a way that respects the facts and also touches the heart. Expertly directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) and beautifully written by Steve Coogan, who co-stars as Sixsmith, the film portrays honesty, courage and decency without stumbling into easy sentimentality.
Raised in an Irish orphanage by nuns who taught no courses in reproductive health, teenaged Philomena found herself pregnant after one evening out with a handsome lad. She was coerced by the sisters to give up her 3-year-old Anthony for adoption. Half a century later, the devout, goodhearted retiree wants to find out where her boy is. “I just want to know if he’s ever thought of me,” she tells Sixsmith. “I’ve thought of him every day.”
Oxford-educated Sixsmith loathes the idea: “I don’t do ‘human interest’ stories, because it’s a euphemism for stories aimed at weak-minded ignorant people.” Still, he’s in the throes of a midlife crisis. His jobs as a political PR consultant and BBC correspondent having gone belly up. Swallowing his pride, he pitches Philomena’s story to a tabloid editor as a story about “evil nuns.”
The condescending intellectual and the sweet old dear follow the adoption trail to the United States, in an odd-couple comedy much smarter, funnier and angrier than most.
The film has the age-old appeal of a conspiracy story, with the investigators meeting obstruction at every turn.
The film’s stronger hand, though, is the byplay between two top performers cast opposite their usual type. Dench is no starchy authority figure but a gauche, unpretentious pensioner fond of romance novels. Coogan plays a straighter version of the elitist twits that are his usual stock in trade.
The film’s plot is one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, a veritable barrage of dramatic bombshells. Along the way Sixsmith, born Catholic and turned outspoken atheist, and Philomena, who never drifted from faith despite her church’s transgressions, have illuminating, unforced discussions about guilt, God, faith and forgiveness. When they confront a religious figure central to Anthony’s disappearance, the scene honors both Philomena’s clemency and Sixsmith’s righteous ire. Smart, sensitive, serious without being solemn, this is a human interest story perfectly told.