With tales of wizards and warriors taking over at the box office, it can often be forgotten that some of the most powerful stories we’ll ever hear happen to everday people just down the street.
“Philomena” is the true story of a woman (Judi Dench) who was forced to give up her child after an unwed pregnancy and, after decades apart, decided to track him down with the help of a disgraced journalist (Steve Coogan).
The search for Philomena’s child begins when the woman discloses to her daughter the secret that she’s been hiding for years. This same daughter then works as a server at a high-class function where she learns that Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist and political spin doctor, is shopping around book ideas. After thinking it over, he decides that maybe this “human interest story” is a better idea than his next best idea: an anthology of Russian history.
As with every great mystery, there are roadblocks and twists to encounter, but the story is about more than just the search for Philomena’s child. It also about her confronting what was done to her by the convent that forced her adoption and the pain of never knowing what became of her child.
There is a recurring discussion between Martin and Philomena on whether there is a God and, if so, what would be his purpose in doing what he did to this harmless woman. Not only that, but the very people who claim to be in communication with Him and doing His work are at the heart of the wrong that was done to her. With Martin playing the atheist/agnostic and Philomena being a devout Catholic, each side gets to have their own thoughts expressed without anyone in our easily-offended society feeling the urge to be offended.
Dench and Coogan make for a great pair throughout the film in other aspects as well. While Coogan’s Martin is jaded by his years in politics and high society, Philomena is easily enchanted by the simplest of ideas. One of their greatest exchanges takes place on the back of a cart traveling through an American airport. Philomena has just finished a dime-a-dozen romance novel and cannot wait to tell Martin every twist and turn the book has to offer. Even though Martin (and probably the audience) couldn’t care less, this little old lady is more excited about her book than Martin would be having won the lottery.
What makes “Philomena” work, aside from its humor, is the conviction of its characters. Though Philomena may feel a little cartoonish at times with her joy and wonder, both she and Martin are well-rounded people. Mixed with a smart script (adapted from Martin Sixsmith’s book), the performances by Coogan and Dench bring a warmth to the film and provide us with a reason why we should really care about the search for a lost child.
From veteran director Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity” and “The Queen”), “Philomena” is a story of overcoming regrets and making amends with our pasts. With powerful storytelling and likeable characters, the story of Philomena Lee is one that sticks with you.
Next up I’ll be reviewing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. Be on the lookout for my Favorite Movies of 2013 post coming soon. Happy viewing.