This Oscar nominated film got past me in 2013, and I am all the sorrier for it. Judi Dench is Philomena, a provincial, sweet Irish retiree in London who, living with her adult daughter, reveals a long-hidden secret – that she gave birth to a son in Ireland out of wedlock in the 1950s, and subsequently, was forced into labor in a Catholic abbey as penance while her child was relocated, at a price, to the United States. Philomena’s daughter enlists the assistance of a recently sacked Blair-administration official, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who, grudgingly and rather condescendingly takes on her “human interest” story to find her son. What follows is a trip (yes, another Steve Coogan trip movie), first to the abbey, and them after receiving no help there, to America. Along the way, Coogan’s cynicism, self-importance and emptiness tangles with Dench’s faith, sincerity and essential decency.
This is a beautiful, kind-hearted, witty movie. Dench is moving as a mother haunted by the absence of a child she kept firmly in her mind (the nuns at the abbey allowed the shamed mothers to visit their children an hour a day, making their inevitable separation even more traumatic), and Coogan is firmly cold-hearted and self-pitying without being a caricature. Their scenes together are sensitive and comedic without lapsing into treacle or schmaltz, and the impact each has on the other is believable. My only mild criticisms are a few too-cute moments for Dench and a juiced-up ending, pouring it on the nuns. While it works dramatically, it paints a picture even the real Philomena was uncomfortable with, and upon reflection, it’s too much (we are provided an evil nun who spits a final rejoinder of, “self-denial and mortification of the flesh is what brings us closer to God. These girls have no one to blame except themselves”).
Nonetheless, this is largely true to the incredible true story, and I can’t recommend it enough.