All words: Alan Pyke
What if I told you you could see Dame Judi Dench exercise her charm while flattering your distaste for repressive ideas about sex and for President Reagan, all for less than a food truck lunch platter? Email spam filters earn their supper by identifying that kind of pitch as too good to be true, but that’s an accurate summary of what makes Philomena so satisfying.
Satisfying for the liberal-minded, that is. If you’d like to coax your conservative uncle or your priest into some delicious post-Thanksgiving comeuppance, I recommend emphasizing the bit about Judi Dench and leaving the rest out. Pitch it as the tale of a woman trying to track down the son who was adopted away from her years ago, or maybe as the story of an ill-matched pair – a kindly old earnest woman and a self-satisfied sarcasm-pit of a journalist – on an unlikely adventure that’s at turns uproariously funny and emotionally devastating (those are accurate depictions too; I wouldn’t ask you to lie to your priest.)
Philomena is based on the true story of a woman whose son was taken from her by the Irish nuns to whom she was given when she got pregnant without having the decency to get husbanded first. Philomena Lee (Dench) would likely never have found her son if Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hadn’t managed to get fired by Tony Blair, leaving the cynical ex-journalist enough free time to get sucked into the pursuit of what he derides as “a human interest story.” The book he wrote about their search is called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” and its revelations about the Catholic Church’s practice of shutting away unwed mothers and exploiting them for labor and revenue via so-called Magdalene Laundries form the basis for Stephen Frears’ poignant, punchy, and often funny film.
Frears (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen) doesn’t do anything exceptional or even striking in terms of editing, camerawork, or composition. He’s always been a director who eschews those most tangible means of creating a striking end product, but his talents lie elsewhere and are substantial. As in past projects, the work he draws from his actors and his facility for telling a good story simply is what carries Philomena. Flashbacks shot in a grainy, color-saturated look that’s reminiscent of the found footage in a Ken Burns documentary is about as flashy as Frears gets here.
Coogan (I Am Alan Partridge, Coffee and Cigarettes) provides the script as well as giving voice, body, meanness, and self-pity to Sixsmith. The dynamic between the journalist and his subject is every bit as conventional as Frears’ visual choices. He is curmudgeonly before his time, full of not-quite-veiled upper-crust condescension, and these assholish tendencies are presented as fueling a bullheadedness that Philomena needs in order to gain closure for her long-open wound. She is bubbly and curious and sweet and sincere, brushing past his rudeness without comment until he pushes her too far. Every beat of their relationship feels pre-ordained, unsurprising. Credit Dench for carrying that off without making it leaden, and Coogan for writing something so familiar without sapping it of zip, glee, and emotional investments.
And spare some credit for the Catholic Church, American political cowardice, misogyny, and puritanical panics about sex. Without those evils Philomena Lee might have gotten to know her son much sooner, but then there’d be no Philomena and no built-to-order scratching post for liberal indignation.