Philomena is based on a true story, and as it happens a very sad, even tragic one, about a young Irish woman, Philomena Lee, who was sent to a nunnery by her father when she got pregnant out of wedlock, one of many girls whose babies were sold for adoption to wealthy American Catholics. Later in life, she decided that she wanted to find her lost son Anthony, and ended up enlisting the help of Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, to find the child. Eventually a book came out of it, but before that, actor, comedian and writer Steve Coogan happened to see an article about Philomena, and he was so moved by the story that he decided to make a film about it, bringing in the eminent English director Stephen Frears to make it.
Remarkably, the screenplay that Coogan co-wrote with Jeff Pope, although it powerfully brings home the grief and injustice of the story, also manages a light hearted comic flavor at times, by focusing on the relationship between the devout working-class Philomena and the sophisticated, non-believing Martin Sixsmith. The picture opens with Coogan as Martin, suffering through a career crisis after being sacked from his job as a press aide to the prime minister. Coogan expertly embodies a kind of dour, often sarcastic and dismissive public intellectual, who rudely snubs Philomena’s daughter when first approached, then reluctantly agrees to do what is commonly pigeonholed as a “human interest story.”
We then meet Philomena herself, played by Judi Dench, and as the film goes on it becomes apparent that no one could have played Philomena better than Dame Judi. Here she shows her skill at disappearing into a character, so that you don’t think, “Oh, that’s Judi Dench,” but instead really believe in this stubborn, somewhat uneducated, older woman clinging to the desire to find her son or at least learn how he fared in life after being taken from her.
The film is a two-hander to a great degree, and it’s hard to imagine two actors with more opposite styles—Dench with her disciplined, utterly focused control, and Coogan with his standoffish comic sensibility. The mixture works beautifully. It’s not just a difference in temperament either—Martin has no patience for religion, and his indignant reaction to what was done to Philomena is understandable, but surprisingly Philomena has not lost her faith and seeks no revenge, only resolution. The friendship that gradually develops between these two people is tender, and ultimately moving.
Now, on a side note, Philomena demonstrates, in my view, that conventional Hollywood thinking is distorted. It’s the accepted wisdom that successful films aim at the youth market, have youthful stars, and feature lots of action, with violence, sex, and/or special effects. Philomena breaks every single one of those rules. It was made for only $12 million and has made over $85 million so far, and the DVD only just came out. This is about a 700% profit. In cash terms that’s not in the same range as a blockbuster like Iron Man 3, but it does show that there’s an audience out there for dramas about people over 30. Anyway, Philomena takes an amazing story and gives it a special kind of flavor. It’s well worth your time.