Directed by: Stephen Frears
PG-13. 94 mins
A formulaic, but resonant depiction of injustice and the various ways in which people respond to such seemingly unforgivable events. Based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, the film focuses on the efforts of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), mother to a boy conceived out of wedlock – something her Irish-Catholic community didn’t have the highest opinion of – and given away for adoption in the United States. Following church doctrine, Philomena was forced to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into the son’s whereabouts. After starting a family years later in England and, for the most part, moving on with her life, Lee meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disillusioned BBC reporter who she entrusts in discovering her long-lost son.
What begins as a comedy between two skilled actors quickly becomes much more as we peek further into the past and uncover more truth about what really happened to Philomena’s son. One critic even went so far as claiming Dench and Coogan to be, “the greatest pairing of a male nonbeliever an a female believer since ‘The African Queen'” and in a way, that sentiment holds true. The outward appearance of the duo seems joyful, but there is a sadness behind their eyes and we can be humbled in witnessing two very different approaches to dealing with pain. There is anger, but the forgiveness and faith – not necessarily a religious one – is what makes this seemingly *simple* story quite profound.
Curiously, Coogan’s character is often scolded for “packaging human tragedy” in his articles but isn’t that exactly what director Frears is doing here? It’s a human interest story as well, with all the trappings of a mass-appeal tearjerker: the unlikable man who grows a heart, a charming grandmother, an idyllic European countryside, lonely hotel rooms, airports and a story so unbelievable it must be true! The film is a treat for all ages, if looked at from afar, but up close it’s quite obvious that Frears isn’t quite sure what tone he’s willing to commit with regards to his subjects and while we learn about her past, there still isn’t much bulk to the character of Philomena herself, or Sixsmith for that matter. There’s a lot of blame to throw around once it’s revealed what exactly happened to Philomena’s lost son, but the film never goes much further than finger pointing, which makes this factual work feel quite fictional at times.
Equally humorous as it is heart-breaking, Philomena will please most adult audiences. Perhaps if it didn’t dance so easily around the issues, those who aren’t as susceptible to tears may have truly felt their (completely justified) weight.