Dench and Coogan propel the film forward with strong performances and endearing chemistry.
Judi Dench, an actress capable of moving mountains with her onscreen power, is capable of much more than what’s required of her in Philomena, a good film based on an astounding true story, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen). Embodying the titular character doesn’t come close to exhausting Dench’s extensive capabilities, but instead of overpowering the film just to show off, or lazing her way through the material like she’s above it, Dench applies just the right amount of pressure, hitting that sweet, sweet spot because, well, she’s Judi Dench and brilliance is kind of her thing.
In 1950’s Ireland, a young Philomena Lee was sent to a Catholic convent to atone for the sin of getting pregnant out of wedlock. The atonement was unscrupulously extreme; her son, Anthony, then barely a toddler, was taken from her without her consent and sold to a wealthy family in America. Philomena, a devout Catholic and a (perplexingly) forgiving soul, obliged the covent’s wishes to not seek out the son they swiped. That is, until 2003 when she met journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan.)
Martin, reeling from public humiliation (he was just fired from his job with the government), stumbles upon an opportunity to redeem himself in Philomena, an ostensibly perfect subject human interest story as she’s approaching a breaking point in her now nearly 50-year-long lament of Anthony. She agrees to let Martin document her journey to America to uncover what’s become of her son.
Coogan (who also co-wrote the film), a tested comedic performer, carefully plants moments humor throughout the mostly somber film, though he approaches the weightier dramatic moments with a measure of sensitivity and finesse that proves his range more expansive than one might expect. His blackly cynical, know-it-all take on Sixsmith plays nicely off of Dench’s endearingly gullible and simple-souled Philomena. I hesitate to call them an odd couple (though they’re different on many levels), because of how well the pairing works. Philomena’s general naiveté and disconnect with the media world Martin is so wrapped up in always pushes his buttons in the most hilarious way. Martin just can’t let go of the improbability of every hotel worker Philomena meeting being “one in a million”, as she calls them. He’s a smart-ass, and her kindness baffles him (though it’ll eventually enlighten him.)
The film’s tone is bittersweet, with Philomena’s deep-seated regret propelling the duo’s journey forward at a gentle glide. Several unexpected twists and turns keep the narrative from plateauing, and it’s riveting to watch Martin’s transformation as he observes Philomena’s kind-hearted nature and begins to recalibrate his exhaustingly pessimistic outlook on life. As he becomes personally and emotionally attached to Philomena’s search for Anthony, he finds it harder and harder to do his job and treat her as merely the subject of his story, and his feelings only become more conflicted. If it seems like I’m being evasive about the details of Martin and Philomena’s trip to America, it’s because they’re best discovered as you watch the film.
Frears exhibits little style in the way he presents the story and almost doesn’t do it justice. The imagery, camerawork, and editing feel very “bare-minimum” and don’t match Dench and Coogan’s passion. He merely presents their performances instead of elevating them. It’s an understated film, with a permeating sense of loss and regret, but it often feels too hushed and visually muted for its own good. Still, Frears’ technique is solid and causes the story no real harm, and the beautiful final message of the film rings loud and true.