From director Stephen Frears and co-written by star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, “Philomena” is an adaptation of the nonfiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith, a British journalist who helped Irish woman Philomena Lee find her son, Anthony, after he was forcibly taken from her as a child. But no, he wasn’t kidnapped—he was taken by the nuns with whom Philomena was living in a convent, nuns who made her do laundry and other drudgery for hours a day while only seeing her son sparingly. The labor was punishment for Philomena having sex before marriage, the nuns said, and the loss of her son was a guilt she carried around for decades until a chance encounter with Sixsmith led them to track him down.
The film begins a little before that chance meeting, when Sixsmith (played by Coogan, of “Despicable Me 2” and “Ruby Sparks”) is booted out of his government job and looking for work. Frustrated that he can’t find anything, Sixsmith attends a party where he runs into a woman who has a story to tell him—the story of how her mother, Philomena (Dench, of “Skyfall”), was forced to give up her son for adoption years before. Thinking the story could be a cut-and-dry human interest piece, Sixsmith pursues it and Philomena—even though they couldn’t be any different.
Philomena loves trashy romance novels! She loves television. She loves practically anything low-brow, and she doesn’t mind American comedies starring the likes of Martin Lawrence. Sixsmith, in contrast, can’t stomach any of that stuff; he considers himself a very important former government official, and sitting around consuming dodgy pop culture, like Philomena does on a daily basis, isn’t his cup of tea. Plus, his atheism—”I don’t believe in God, and I think He can tell”—is in stark contrast to Philomena’s remaining faith.
But they have to work together to find Philomena’s son, and eventually, there’s a respect and understanding that develops between the two of them. They’re not going to be best friends, but they are going to help each other—and they’ll certainly need each other as they seem to face dead end after dead end. First, the convent in Roscrea, Ireland, where Philomena spent so many years toiling away, claims the adoption records for her son—who the nuns gave away when he was 3 years old—were lost in a fire. But he was adopted by a family in the United States, and Sixsmith reaches out to journalistic contacts there, and they begin to pick up a trail.
The story doesn’t end, there, though, and how it progresses—and how it impacts the way Philomena viewed her sacrifice, and the relationship she had with her absent son—will galvanize your politics and hurt your heart.
Viewers in the same age range as Sixsmith and Philomena—anyone from 40 years old and onward, really—will be most aware of the American political climate that claimed Philomena’s son, but it’s a testament to Dench’s acting ability that she can make anyone understand her misery, why she chooses to throw herself into ridiculous pop culture choices, how she can be so forgiving after years of mistreatment. There’s an obvious sympathy you’ll have for Philomena—how could you not, for someone forced to give up her son?—but it’s Dench’s soft-spoken grit, her unpretentiousness and choice to stick with her faith that make her admirable and relatable. Coogan is more limited in the role of Sixsmith—he’s elitist and fussy, and a good amount of his role is, in fact, spent looking down his nose at people—but he works as a fine foil for Philomena.
Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t present this as an entirely Philomena vs. the Church showdown; it doesn’t have the teeth necessary to tear out the clergy’s throat. Instead, the nuns are portrayed as an isolated evil and Philomena remains religious, despite all that has befallen her, so the film doesn’t become a crusade. Nevertheless, the facts are the facts: a baby stolen, lives lived unnecessarily apart, years of punishment and guilt and sadness. “I’ve thought of him every day,” Philomena says of her son, and the film rightfully doesn’t gloss over the cruelty that created that distance. But in giving Dench a chance to shine, too, it makes for very affecting stuff.
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