In all the noise of the movies at the multiplex this season, between the special-effects movies vying for your 3D-dollars and the big-cast ensembles competing for the spoils of awards season, let’s try not to step on the occasional little gem that creeps in this time of year. You know the ones: the movies with heart, soul and story. Well, I’ve got one for you: Philomena.
Philomena could easily have been a made-for-television movie of the week. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish nurse who, as a teenage girl in 1950’s Catholic Ireland, had been disowned by her parents when she became pregnant out of wedlock. Sent to live at the local abbey, Philomena was coerced into signing away her baby by the nuns, who never told her what happened to her son, or ever allowed her to find out who adopted him. The movie is set 50 years later as Philomena’s grown daughter seeks the assistance of a British journalist, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, to help Philomena, played by Judi Dench, track down her son, who Philomena had never stopped thinking about since those tortured days at the abbey in Ireland when they were ripped apart from each other.
What sounds a little Lifetime Movie of the Week might be boring and been-there-seen-that by an average director. But in director Stephen Frears’s (The Queen, Dangerous Liasions) hands, Philomena has a deft touch, walking the line between heartwarming, tender, honest, funny and brutal to give us a moving and layered picture of a woman who is tortured by her past but still holds onto her beliefs and the ability to forgive and see the beauty in the world. The direction works hand in hand with the sensitive and humor-infused script from Coogan and Jeff Pope, which highlights Philomena’s humanity, but works best when her sincerity is contrasted with Sixsmith’s cynicism—Coogan and Dench’s chemistry is undeniable and watching them work—a master of comedy bantering with a Dame of classic theatre—is sheer ecstacy.
Of course, direction and writing aside, nothing is anything here without Dench. She carries every inch of this movie and the delicacy of her performance makes or breaks it because one wrong turn and this becomes just another Catholic church-victim tale that, to be honest, we don’t need to see another of. Thankfully, we’re in the hands of a master and Dame Judi gives us a character to fall in love with: multi-dimensional, tormented yet optimistic, fearful yet hopeful, simple yet aware of the world around her, and innocently embodying what the best of us can and should strive to be yet stronger than any of us would imagine we could ever be.
Philomena is a movie to seek out if you cherish movies with a soul—this one has it in spades. There’s nothing quite like a Dame.