Playing the decidedly dowdy title character, an old Irish lady, Judi Dench reminds us that she can do much more than what has become her standard, stereotypical commanding role, whether it is an English queen or Bond’s M. I know so many people who have gotten to the point in which they run screaming rather than see a Dench film, but—and I hope they’re reading this—please consider catching Philomena. It defies its seeming framework as a sudsy tale of mother love crossed with an attack on the Roman Catholic Church. Happily, incredulously, it is neither.
Told at first in a series of haunting flashbacks, Philomena reminds us of a time and place where teen sex was strictly verboten, even as it was tempting, and then immediately reminds us of the dreadful consequences for young Irish Catholic girls who had brought dishonor on their families. Brought to a nunnery, Philomena signs away her rights to ever search for her child, should he survive and be adopted. She and the other girls are compelled to work four years in the steamy environs of the laundry, but are allowed an hour each day to reconnect with their offspring. These moments are the only glimpses of pure joy in the movie’s early going, contrasting with the moment when Philomena, in denial, realizes that her own son, Antony, is being taken by an American couple. Her attempts to scream out to him, to reach him as he is driven away, are truly heartbreaking.
Flash forward 50 years later: Philomena comes clean with daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who, in a chance meeting with a disgraced BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) convinces him to take on this “human interest story.” Initially cynical, Martin soon becomes intrigued not just by the story itself, but by Philomena’s stoicism mixed with an incredibly strong Christian faith, one that refuses to assign blame or cast hatred on those who may have wronged her.
The resulting journey is a mix of the odd couple on planes, trains and automobiles, and I don’t mean to diminish the very fine writing and performances which make the blossoming friendship between the disparate main characters so downright compelling. There is a bit of a surprise twist which, again, could have driven us down the rabbit hole of blaming organized religion or patting ourselves on the back for having had the, ahem, good fortune to have been born in a later, less constricted era. But Frears, working from the book Sixsmith wrote about the experience, keeps a fine ear to the sensitivities of people’s choices and, more importantly, a profound respect for the tenets of their faith. Sixsmith scoffs at Philomena’s continued reliance on her faith, until a moment when he realizes that this same faith has given her far more than it has ever taken away. It’s a lovely, moving story that is especially meaningful during this season of Advent.