Philomena tells the story of the real life Philomena Lee, a woman who had her son taken from her as a teenage mother and spend the next 50 years trying to find him. It's a very affecting story, and the film takes the clever route of telling it through the prism of a journalist writing a "human interest" story, which is exactly how the movie plays out.
BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith was fired from his job in Tony Blair's government in 2003, and spent his next project telling Philomena's story, which is a heartbreaking and sorrowful tale in and of itself, but could have taken the time to make a greater point about the criminal nature of Catholic nuns in Ireland in the mid-20th century. That undeniably outrageous environment is exposed here and could be given sharper focus, but the personal story stays front and center with one particular subject herself, as is the case in most human interest stories. Philomena is played by Judi Dench, who gives the slightly dotty older lady some deep shades of sorrow as the hint of a tragic past lies permanently beneath her daffy nature. She's a woman who undergoes some horrific injustices in her formative years, yet remains an optimistic, forgiving, sweet natured soul. The normally hard edged Dench makes the smart decision of giving Philomena hidden depths behind those ponderous eyes, which is essential to making her somebody to root for.
As a teenager in the 1950's, Philomena got pregnant from a one night stand, was disowned by her family and sent to live in a convent with other pregnant teenagers. The nuns at the convent made the girls slave laborers and allowed them to see their children for one hour a day, until the babies were sold to American couples looking to adopt. This has haunted Philomena all her life, and now she and Martin set out to find what has become of her son fifty years later. Still more sadness lies in the truth of what she will find, yet Coogan and Dench make a fitting pair along the way, as Martin learns to appreciate Philomena's naivete despite his initial annoyance, and there are some funny moments between them thanks to Coogan's comic timing and occasionally witty writing (he co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope). There is a nice chemistry between Coogan and Dench, but the development of their relationship is fairly predictable and at times cliche, as Philomena's actual quest to discover what happened to her son and her traumatic background is the more interesting part of the story.
The resolution of Philomena's journey is highly frustrating however, as the insistence on keeping what happened to her a strictly personal offense, when it in fact happened to many young girls at the hands of this unapologetic and still brazenly lying (at least as far as the film shows) organization, begs for a larger statement of condemnation to be made. But the movie won't do it, opting instead to keep things simple (far too simple) in order to leave audiences with a rather unearned feel good ending, when the crimes Philomena, her son, and so many others have been subjected to deserve a harsher sense of retribution. Many will find this film moving however, and Dench's performance is altogether wonderfully complex when given what could have been an exceedingly simple character on the page. She remains a towering actress of the highest order, indeed a Dame worthy of recognition.
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