Based on a true story, Philomena involves the odd pairing of a former journalist turned disgraced government advisor and elderly Irish woman on a road trip to discover what happened to the child that was taken from her nearly 50 years ago.
Although initially not interested in a human interest piece, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) finds himself drawn into Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) story of her forced labor at a convent decades earlier whose nuns sold her child, and those of several other unwed mothers, into adoption for 1000 pounds.
Beginning at the convent, whose inability to help Sixsmith is immediately suspicious of, the pair eventually travel to Washington, D.C. in a search that will give the old woman some insight into the man her son became.
Centered around Dench’s performance and the saintly, but not cheesy or overly sentimental, character of Philomena, the film could have easily fallen into the worst kind of TV-movie-of-the-week melodrama. Instead, Stephen Frears chooses to make a straightforward drama that works well (despite its over-reliance on the odd couple dynamic).
Although it’s far from Frears’ best work, Philomena is a solid film that offers the chance for Coogan and Dench to spend much of their time alone together onscreen in discussion of everything from trashy romance novels to the existence, and nature, of a higher power. The understated nature of the picture works to Dench’s benefit but not always to that of her co-star. Coogan feels a bit cooped-up here in the straight-laced role the actor wrote for himself (in adapting Sixsmith’s book with fellow screenwriter Jeff Pope).
The ugliness of the convent’s actions (and their continued unwillingness to accept responsibility or offer any penance for the pain caused) is in stark contrast to the forgiving nature of Philomena who has every right to seek vengeance for the kind of permanent damage that may be able to be forgiven but can never be undone.
In the end, Philomena is a charming film that (in the spirit of the title character) lets the villains of the piece off the hook without truly examining the scope of their damage over the years. The forgiveness offered is a nice message, and certainly fits with character’s actions throughout, but it also undercuts the travesty of the circumstances leaving the final scenes between Coogan and Dench feeling a bit incomplete. As Sixsmith remarks, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive them either.