Based on the remarkable true story of Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish lady whose son was taken from her while she was a young girl working at a convent. Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, plays Martin Sixsmith, a recently unemployed political journalist who journeys with Philomena, played by an amazing Judi Dench, on a search for her long lost son.
The story is simple enough, a young girl living in a very conservative, catholic society has a fun night out at the fair and gets pregnant (without really knowing how it could have been prevented). Disowned by her parents and ostracised from society, she is forced to work at a convent to atone for her sins. She gets to see her son for one hour every day, until one day a wealthy couple visit the convent and adopt him.
For personal reasons, this struck very close to home. I, myself, being adopted have it on my to-do list to go on a similar search for my origins. All the emotions, the little thoughts that creep into your head, the “what ifs…”, the “I wonder did they…”, the “what were they like?” questions are dealt with brilliantly and very sensitively by Dench. The slow uncovering of clues keeps viewers glued to the screen, and the plot chugging along.
Coogan’s character provides a foil to Dench’s, which is the core of why this movie ‘works’. From the outset it is abundantly clear that he and Philomena are very different people, coming from very different walks of life. Sixsmith’s Oxford-educated ways, slightly arrogant, smart-alec, and sharp-tongued attitude contrast starkly with Lee’s quite simple Irish-Catholic sensibilities. Their interaction, and surprising development throughout the film, where they each begin to learn from each other, and change subtly, provide a constant motivation for the audience to stay emotionally invested.
Considering the sensitive subject material, and the fact that it really is a true story, the writers have done an admirable job of keeping the overall tone fairly light-hearted and no too heavy. The flashbacks are occasionally interspersed (where appropriate) with actual video footage of the characters in the film’s real-life counterparts.
As far as awards go, I don’t think Philomena will win best picture. It may win best original score, and Judi Dench seems a shoe-in for best actress. In any case, I would certainly recommend this film. It’s heartwarming, touching, and at times infuriating – en emotional journey to say the least. It’s a little bit anti-Catholic, and has copped some criticism for it. If you’re not a Catholic, you’re going to think that it’s perfectly justified in being a little anti-Catholic, and if you are a Catholic… you may still feel that way by the end of the movie. A little bit too heavy to be a good ‘date film’ but it does make that essential emotional connection to its audience. File under “movies that teach us something about ourselves”.