Journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, is looking for a project after getting booted out of his job as a director of communications for the Tony Blair government by a scandal that wasn’t his fault. He considers himself a serious journalist so when he first hears about the story of Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, he’s not interested. He disdains human interest stories. But at the same time he is getting desperate for something to do.
As a teenager in Ireland, Philomena got pregnant out of wedlock. She was living in an orphanage, run by nuns at the time. To pay for the cost of the birth, Philomena was required to work in the laundry as an indentured servant for four years. They made her give up the boy, who for the first three years of his life was raised in the orphanage’s nursery. She was allowed to see him for one hour a day. Then he was adopted by an American couple and taken away. Philomena went on to become a nurse and have other children but she never forgot the one that was taken from her. Now after fifty years she wants to try and find him.
When Martin hears this story, he finally sees an angle he thinks he can exploit. A former altar boy and now lapsed Catholic, he has some rather strong and acerbic views on religion. Finding a deeply buried injustice perpetrated by the Church is the sort of thing he can attack with passion. Unfortunately, Philomena’s motives do not fit into this narrative. Despite her treatment at the hands of the church, she’s still a devout Catholic.
This theological tension is the core of the movie. Martin is slick and sophisticated with a mind trained to appreciate subtle arguments, whereas Philomena is a simple soul with proletarian tastes and a stubborn uncritical faith. She is not angry; she is merely curious about her son’s fate, excited about the possibility of meeting him, and sad that she had to be separated from him.
Philomena is an accomplished drama with some comedic elements which the director, Stephen Frears, seems to specialize in. This movie is a nifty 98 minutes which is just the right length. The screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on the book by Martin Sixsmith, is concise and unsentimental, letting the drama come naturally from the events in the story. This is based on a true story.
Steve Coogan, who usually does off the wall comedy, delivers a nuanced performance as an intelligent man in the process of being humbled first by the loss of his job and then by this surprising woman, he’s partnering with. When the search takes them to America, he shepherds her through his world of international travel and fine hotels. He’s not a deliberately mean person but he can be short with people and often has trouble refraining from making unkind comments. Philomena chides him and he’s shocked to find that he has no defense for his behavior.
Judi Dench masterfully portrays all of Philomena’s emotions sometimes all at once. One minute she’s weeping uncontrollably and the next she prattling happily away about the latest romance novel she’s read. It is a concise portrait of a woman with surprising hidden strengths. Those strengths are the main difference between her and Martin. She has the ability to compartmentalize her emotions and to lift herself out of a pool of grief and dive into another pool of contentment or even happiness.
In the end she has less trouble forgiving the nuns who separated her from her baby than Martin does. She draws that ability from her humble faith because she knows that it’s not her place to judge the nuns and to do so would fill her life with bitterness and anger. This is her lesson for Martin and the proper angle for his book.