“Philomena” stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in what amounts to a two-person movie, another of those “small” films that have accounted for most of this year’s best. (I’m coming to think that Bigger=Worse, but that’s grist for another column.) Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted the book by Martin Sixsmith, whom Coogan plays here, along with serving as a co-producer. It is a touching, provocative comedy/drama that deals with a distinctly unfunny subject: the loss of one’s child and the agonizing search for him.
At 79, Dame Judith shows no signs of slowing down; if anything, she is in top form as Philomena Lee, an aging Irish woman who, after 50 years, has decided to search for the baby she was forced to give up. In 1955, the young Philomena (played by Sophie Kennedy Clark), pregnant by a stranger, was forced in disgrace into an abbey by her father. After a painful breech birth, she is further punished for her “sin” by working in the laundry seven days a week, allowed to see her son, Anthony, only one hour a day. Her child, along with the daughter of her best friend, Mary, is given by the nuns to a rich American couple, without either woman’s consent—again justified as their just deserts.
Half a century later, in 2005, Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), arranges for her to meet Sixsmith, a worldly journalist recently fired from a government job and contemplating writing a book on Russian history. At first reluctant to embark on a “human interest” story, which he snobbishly regards as beneath him, Martin gradually comes around to the idea, even convincing a magazine editor to pick up the expenses of the search.
A lapsed Catholic himself, the atheist Martin wants to focus on the “evil nuns” who effectively sold the babies. A visit to the Abbey, where they are told there are no records of the adopted children, only furthers his determination. He and Jane convince Philomena to go with him to Washington, D.C., to research the immigrant records, a serious journey that yields much gentle laughter. Once in America, a series of remarkable revelations and discoveries complicate and deepen the story’s themes, especially its all-too-rare consideration of religious questions.
As Martin’s editor tells him, whether the ending is happy or sad doesn’t matter: one could make a case for both. The pleasure of the movie lies in Dench’s nuanced portrait of Philomena, Coogan’s ability to convey the relationship, and the gradual shift in the balance between the “simple” woman and the sophisticated writer. Early on, for instance, the laughs are mostly at Philomena’s naivete; later, Martin appears the fool, wise though he thinks himself to be. Stephen Frears’ firm yet delicate control of the movie’s tone impresses throughout, as does Robbie Ryan’s adroit cinematography. (I was particularly intrigued by the continual insertion of “home movies,” which work as both imagination and foreshadow.)
“Philomena” is rated “PG-13” primarily for some strong language and frankness about matters sexual. It’s an adult movie in the best sense, however, one that treats religious questions seriously, but not somberly. Teens will likely lose interest, given the pace and the subject matter. In limited release, it will probably do only middling box-office business. Too bad, because more people should see the fine acting and reflect on its troubling themes.