We think of “holiday movies” as tales of families coming together. Philomena is most definitely not a holiday movie, but its portrayal of a family torn apart and a search for answers warms the heart nonetheless. It’s worth your time this Christmas.
The film is based on a true story. Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a former journalist and political operative who has just lost his job with the British government in a highly-publicized scandal. Casting around for something to do next, Sixsmith learns of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman who was separated from her first child long ago. A “shamed girl” due to her teenage pregnancy, she was given shelter by Catholic nuns, who eventually allowed her son to be adopted by another family.
The boy, Anthony, would now be turning 50, and the secret Philomena has kept all these years tumbles out of her in a whirlwind of regret and shame. She’s tried to locate him before, but didn’t get much information from the nuns, who claim the records have been destroyed. Sixsmith sees an opportunity to help Philomena, while digging up a juicy “human interest story” that could get him back into the news game.
To say any more about the plot would be telling, but there’s more to this story than simply tracking Anthony down. It’s also a meditation on faith. Sixsmith can’t understand how Philomena maintains her devotion to God and pleasant disposition toward the nuns after what they did to her. Philomena, a quiet, reserved woman, wonders why Sixsmith’s idea of God has to be so complex. Their conversations on this point provide a deeper layer of meaning to the film.
Coogan has made a comedy career out of playing smarmy, self-absorbed jerks, and there is an initial expectation that Sixsmith is a variation on his Alan Partridge character. Instead, Coogan plays it fairly straight, and his Sixsmith remains a decent and likeable character, even as the man strategizes with his editor over the news story. As a producer and co-screenwriter (with Jeff Pope), Coogan has also clearly invested himself in this story, and he and director Stephen Frears (The Queen) treat its real-life characters with a great deal of respect.
In the title role, Dench is excellent. Like many seniors, you can imagine Philomena doesn’t get out much, and spends her days in front of the TV or reading romance novels. Dench captures the essence of what that does to a person over time: the blind trust in second-hand news, the fixation on minutia, the tendency to over-share. But it’s also clear she’s no senile old granny – there’s a fire inside her, and when Dench lets it show it’s powerful stuff.
The marketing for Philomena suggests it’s a quaint, light-hearted drama, but there’s considerably more to it, and it deserves to find a larger audience than those who patronize quaint, light-hearted dramas. Amid the twinkling hobbits and shiny anchormen this season, seek it out for something a little more substantial.
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