At 72 years old, two time Oscar nominated director Stephen Frears (The Queen) delivers yet another absorbing biopic about life across the pond in England. Unlike his based on a true story “The Queen,” the prolific filmmaker turns to a contemporary factual tale in “Philomena.” Even though the narrative revolves around people that are still living and breathing, Frears doesn’t hesitate to put his own religious spin on the topic. Benefitting from two spirited performances from stars Steve Coogan (Hamlet 2) and Judi Dench (Casino Royale), the film never gets too preachy, however. Instead, light-hearted humor and excellent chemistry create a feel good movie that will absolutely make the case for an Academy Award nomination come early next year. Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope (Essex Boys) use the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee as the basis for their film.
“Philomena” focuses on the efforts of Philomena Lee (Dench), now an elderly lady, who mothered a boy out of wedlock 50 years ago. Facing their Irish-Catholic community, her parents left her at the infamous Roscrea convent where she would give birth to her son Anthony. She kept him until he was adopted at age three. In following church doctrine, she was forced to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any inquiry into the son’s whereabouts. Nonetheless, after starting a new family years later in England and moving on with her life, Lee meets Sixsmith (Coogan), a BBC reporter with whom she decides to search for her long-lost son.
While it has been a very long time since Philomena left the convent, her memories of the place still haunt her. Excellently rendered as short dreamlike scenes, the audience is treated to several flashbacks of a teenage version of the girl in the 1950s—played by Sophie Kennedy Clark.
The film is very much a mystery with a strong British sense of humor. As we watch the pair travel from Philomena’s humble Irish origins to America — where her son might be living — and back again, we unveil secrets of the Catholic Church. The film is at its best during these moments. We are charmed, just like Martin, by Philomena’s unconditional kindness to strangers and her love of romance paperbacks. These extraordinary actors certainly make an enjoyable odd couple to watch.
Yet, all the while, a much deeper message is at play. Philomena, ever the sweet and innocent grandma like figure, is the picture of forgiveness. Even when faced with constant animosity, she remains bound to her faith. Coogan’s Sixsmith, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. He has an atheist’s outlook on life. This type of personality repeatedly causes the character to fumble — stemming all the way back to his losing his BBC job — whereas Philomena always comes away successful.
It is quite clear that Fears wants to let the Catholic Church off the hook for the crimes it committed against unwed mothers in Ireland in the mid-20th century. Thankfully, the unlikely tandem of Steve Coogan and Judi Dench jolt the film out of falling into a melodramatic rut. The two actors have plenty of harmony together, and it resonates with the audience from the moment they meet each other on screen. The many unexpected twists and turns the narrative takes also add a lot to this thoroughly enjoyable tale. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oscar voters took notice come Awards season.
By David Morris