Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Steve Coogan, Judi Dench.
“Some of the nuns were very nice.” This is what Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) says in response to journalist Martin Sixsmith’s (Steve Coogan) incredulity at the conduct of the order of nuns in whose care she found herself after giving birth to her son as an unmarried teenager in 1950’s Ireland. The quote serves as something of a microcosm for the film’s subject matter; despite the abhorrent deeds committed by religious orders in Ireland at the time, and for decades afterwards, they thrived on the unyielding support of a national community that has only recently come to condemn their actions. Frears’ portrayal of senior members of the sisterhood is deliberately unflattering; at certain points, they come across merely as fierce devotees to a misguided set of principles, while, at the other end of the spectrum, they seem overtly psychopathic. Considering the facts of the story, it would have been almost impossible to illustrate them differently.
A brisk opening sequence details Philomena’s trials in the convent while her son is an infant, before he is given by the nuns to an American family without her consent, nor even her prior knowledge. With the help of her daughter, Dench’s Philomena, an endearingly earnest woman who has since moved to England, seeks the help of Sixsmith in tracking down her son fifty years later. Initially reluctant, the snobbish journalist eventually agrees to embark on the search with Philomena and her daughter, traveling first to the abbey in Roscrea where she last saw her son. What emerges thereafter is a series of events so improbable it would have been dismissed as outlandish if it were fiction.
Philomena works spectacularly on two main levels. The first is as a statement of outrage at the atrocities committed by the epochal Irish religious hierarchy. Frears does a fine job of exposing the ruthlessness of the culture and its participants, as well its human impact. The film’s middle section holds back the more troubling drama to allow for the second; an “odd couple,” comedy, to which the two main characters could hardly be better suited. Steve Coogan’s infuriatingly arrogant toff is well-judged, and his blatant disdain for those around him is hugely enjoyable on a few occasions. It is Dench, however, who provides the standout performance. Her good-natured innocence makes for several moments of hilarity (blithely exclaiming to a Mexican chef that his country would be lovely were it not for the kidnappings), but is never allowed to detract from the profoundness of her character’s struggle, which she handles with moving sincerity. Had she not had the misfortune of being nominated alongside the masterful embodiment of psychological disarray from Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, this could well have garnered her a second Academy Award.