At one point early in Philomena, the highbrow and world-weary journalist Martin Sixsmith offers up his pithy judgment of “human interest” stories, dismissing them as “a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, ignorant, weak-minded people.” That line, in the context of the film, is an expression of Sixsmith’s cynicism and a foreshadowing of things to come. At the same time, though, that quote could be the weary pre-judgment of moviegoers, skeptical of another generic “human interest” movie-this one a true-life tale of an old Irish woman trying to find her long-lost son-designed to jerk tears and win awards during Oscar season.
In the case of Philomena, however, there’s no need for such cynicism. Just as the character of Sixsmith ultimately finds his preconceptions shaken, so, too, will skeptical audiences emerge from the movie pleasantly surprised. Philomena has the potential for sentimentality and mawkishness, but it never falls into that trap. Instead, it’s a graceful, delicately balanced movie that sensitively weaves two different strands together: an endearing story of the growing bond forged by two unlikely companions, and a deeply disturbing story of institutional corruption.
The title character is Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a devout Irish woman who we first see in church praying on a none-too-happy anniversary: the 50th birthday of the illegitimate son who was taken from her against her will. Through flashbacks, we learn the sordid story-a teenage Philomena was impregnated by a dashing stranger, and after giving birth, was forced to slave away as a laundry worker in a convent run by vindictive Catholic nuns. Made to sign away her parental rights, Philomena’s son Anthony was taken away at an early age, never to be seen again. Five decades later, Philomena is put in touch with Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently out-of-work political journalist, who decides to take up her story and help her find her son.
At the heart of Philomena lies the two main performances, which find Dench and Coogan stretching their limits as actors and playing up previously unseen strengths. Dench has made her career playing stern, aristocratic figures, whether it’s M in Skyfall or Lady Catherine in Pride & Prejudice. Here, she is someone else entirely: a charming, sprightly, domestic woman who is single-minded in her faith and in her conviction in greeting the world with a smile. But Philomena is not all happy-go-lucky, and over the course of the film, Dench conveys her feelings of guilt and torment with wrenching precision.
Coogan is an even greater discovery. The British comic known for zany roles in Hamlet 2 and Tropic Thunder is almost unrecognizable as Sixsmith, a pent-up intellectual frustrated in his career and initially scornful of Philomena’s bubbly faith and optimism. Coogan follows in the tradition of Bill Murray and Jim Carrey as comedians who have delivered powerful, dramatic performances, tapping into reserves of feeling that go unexplored in their comic work.
Dench and Coogan are certainly an odd couple, and the movie’s main pleasure is watching these two starkly different personalities interact as they travel across America in search of Anthony. But it’s not just fluffy comedic banter-the script, adapted by Coogan and Jeff Pope from Sixsmith’s own book, allows the characters to have tough disputes about religion and the proper role of journalism. Crucially, these topics are not weighty, thematic baggage hanging on the story-rather, they arise organically from the characters and their predicament. Nearly everything about the movie feels natural, and the wisely unobtrusive direction of Stephen Frears (The Queen) allows the script and the actors to do the heavy lifting.
In the end, the movie boils down to two competing visions of how to deal with past injustice: anger or forgiveness. The movie indulges in both, but ultimately sides with forgiveness. To some viewers, the ending may seem like a cop-out, with Frears going soft. Really, though, it couldn’t end any other way. Philomena certainly touches on dark territory: it’s about how the spirit of an institution can become perverted, how faith can be betrayed to devastating ends. But it’s more fundamentally about how that spirit and faith can be restored through simple goodness. In that way, Philomena stays true to the spirit of its character to the end.