Dame Judi Dench as Philomena
Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith
Sophie Kennedy Clark as Young Philomena
Mare Winningham as Mary
Barbara Jefford as Sister Hildegarde
Ruth McCabe as Mother Barbara
Peter Hermann as Pete Olsson
Sean Mahon as Michael
Anna Maxwell Martin as Jane
Michelle Fairley as Sally Mitchell
Wunmi Mosaku as Young Nun
Amy McAllister as Sister Anunciata
Charlie Murphy as Kathleen
Cathy Belton as Sister Claire
Kate Fleetwood as Young Sister Hildegarde
Directed by Stephen Frears
Failed politician Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) returns to his journalistic roots only to come upon the “human interest” story of one Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), an elderly woman who 50 years earlier had her son taken away and put up for adoption by the nuns at the Catholic orphanage where she was placed. She has been secretly looking for him for decades and turns to Martin to help her, as he sees an opportunity to turn a simple story into something much bigger.
What might seem on paper like a premise that could be filled with far too many saccharine and sentimental moments is actually a welcome return to form for Oscar-nominated filmmaker Stephen Frears. Reuniting with the star of his underrated “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” Dame Judi Dench, and working from an adaptation of Sixsmith’s novel co-written by her co-star Coogan, it’s the type of two-hander that rarely works as well as it does in this case.
After introducing Coogan’s character, we meet Philomena as she lights a candle in a church with flashbacks to her teen years, getting pregnant by a young man she meets at the fair, only to be punished for her sins by the nuns who make her suffer through a tough childbirth. When the two of them meet, they travel to the Roscrea orphanage in Ireland to try to get answers but are told that all the records from that time burned in a fire. When Martin discovers that many of the kids were sold to Americans, they travel to Washington, D.C. in hopes of learning the truth about Philomena’s son, who would be 50 years old now. Roughly halfway through the film, there’s a major twist that changes the entire nature of the movie–one we won’t give away here–but it actually is the type of thing that ups the emotion factor as it sends the story in a different direction
From the second Dench and Coogan appear on screen together, you know it’s a chemistry that will work, as she enthusiastically chats about romance novels she’s reading and other such sundries. They’re clearly polar opposites, Martin being a cynical atheist compared to Philomena’s unquestionable faith in God and the Catholic church. Their differences allow for some of the film’s more humorous exchanges, as no one can do an exasperated look better than Coogan – often that’s enough to get a laugh, but he’s tailored the screenplay towards his inimitable style of wit.
Then again, it’s Dench’s performance as a woman who has suffered great loss but also one who refuses to blame the Catholic church for her own so-called “sins” that leaves the most lasting impression. She doesn’t play Philomena as a ditzy doddering old woman instead showing off her strength more than a few times with the last act filled with many emotional moments, all of which Dench pulls off in a convincing way. Other characters show up from time to time, but it’s really Dench and Coogan’s show throughout, the only other memorable performance coming from Sophie Kennedy Clark as the younger Philomena in the flashback scenes.
Although there are plenty of hearty laughs to be had, it’s hard to consider “Philomena” a comedy perse, since it deals with such a tough subject, essentially “evil nuns” who sell the children of their wards and then refuse to help mothers reunite with their children. The nuns’ cruelty to the younger Philomena is akin to what we saw in Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters” (who are even cited in one scene) and it opens the door for Sixsmith’s questioning of the place of religion in modern society.
As with “The Queen,” Frears finds a way to tell this simple story in a way that maintains a calm stillness as he effortlessly goes from humor to pathos from one scene to the next, something that’s smoothed out by another gorgeous score by (who else?) Alexandre Desplat. Frears doesn’t go for flashy camerawork yet the Irish countryside is captured beautifully as are the famous landmarks of Washington D.C.
“Philomena” is one of those movies that plasters a big smile on your face with its sense of warmth and the originality of its storytelling, a true testament to the brilliant combination of Dench, Coogan and Frears that the film transcends what might have been a rather mundane and morose premise otherwise.