By Gary Murray
Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan and Sophie Kennedy Clark
Written by Jackie Coogan and Jeff Pope
Directed by Stephen Frears
Running time 98 min
MPAA Rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Philomena is based on a true story by Martin Sixsmith, a BBC journalist. The book he wrote, The Lost Child, was a best seller. It told the story of Philomena Lee and her fifty yeas saga to find out what happened to her long lost child. The film Philomena is the dramatization of that search.
Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith. He was an award winning journalist who has fallen on hard times. He struggles to keep his wife and flat while looking for that next job. At a party, he meets a producer who is looking for someone to do human interest stories. Sixsmith sneers at the idea. He is a real reporter.
On the other side of the plot, Philomena (Judi Dench) is looking at a very old picture of a little boy. Through flashbacks, we see a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) at a carnival meeting a brash young man. We get the idea that they did more than just hold hands.
Through the flashbacks, the story is told of Ireland and how unwed mother are treated. The mothers are put into an indentured service to the convent and the children are adopted by Americans. All Philomena wants to know is what happened to her son.
Martin is told the tale and sees it as a shot to get back in the good graces of those who hire media. He decides to pitch the idea and the higher-ups jump on the concept. His journey to fifty years in the past starts with the convent where Philomena was held. The two become a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the investigation.
First, they are told that all the records of the adoptions were destroyed in a fire. At the local pub, the two discover that the records were not destroyed in a fire but were purposefully burned. It is just the beginning of the mystery. Going back to the nunnery, the two are rebuffed by the staff.
Martin has a giant chip on his shoulder about religion and especially Catholics. He is full of anger and rage toward everything and everyone. He sneers when a St. Christopher medal is hung on his rear-view mirror by Philomena.
Philomena is just the opposite. She is amazed by the world and everything in it. She holds no grudge against anyone. The old woman believes that everything happens for a greater purpose.
Eventually, the duo has to go to America to solve the mystery of the adopted baby. The film shows the culture clash between old Irish and new America. The serpentine path leads through another adopted child who eventually became the little boy’s sister. Martin finds that he has a connection to the man now known as Michael. The ending of the investigation leads everyone back to the beginning and a resolution for Philomena.
Dame Judi Dench could read the phonebook and still give a fascinating rendition. Here she plays a haunted character, someone who only wants to know the lose ends of her time on the planet. She doesn’t want to shake-up the world, just to find peace to an event that happened almost a lifetime ago. It is a touching reading.
Steve Coogan is a comic actor from such flicks as Tropic Thunder, Tristram Shandy and the brilliant Hamlet 2. This is a huge departure for the actor. He plays a bitter, self-absorbed and shallow character who somehow finds humanity. His righteous indignation of the situation fuels his rage but he never confronts the reality of the world so long ago. In the end, the audience feels pity for him.
Stephen Frears directed My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters and High Fidelity. Here he is in usual form. He weaves a strong tale of family within a world of insensitivity. This is not a film that needs fancy camerawork. It does a workman job, which is a boon for the telling of the story.
In a world where being 16 and pregnant is not shamed but put on television, the idea behind Philomena is going to be hard for young people to understand. It was a very different world before the sexual revolution, something that many can not comprehend. It is much more of a slice of life than a moving cinema experience.