When making a movie based on an emotionally-charged true story there are certain obstacles and temptations that filmmakers must avoid. Time after time we’ve seen movies succumb to dizzying melodrama and cheap emotional tugs. Actors and actresses sometimes go big which can drown out the true heart of their characters. But some films get it right. They balance grounded emotion with smart and crisp storytelling. For the most part “Philomena” is one of the films that gets it right.
“Philomena” tells the touching true story of Philomena Lee and her search to find her son after 50 years of separation. The unquenchable Judi Dench plays this mother who is haunted by thoughts and visions of her long-lost son which drives her to find him. Her daughter introduces her to a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in hopes that he will investigate and tell her remarkable but heartbreaking story. But he’s not without baggage. He was recently unfairly fired from a government position and his journalism career is floundering. He thinks a human interest story is beneath him but he takes it and hoping of getting back on track.
We learn Philomena’s story along with Martin. Through flashbacks we see that a young Philomena was left at a convent in Ireland by her father after she becomes pregnant. Later on the sisters force her to work seven days a week in a hot laundry room as some sort of twisted act of penance. They allow her and other mothers to see their children once a day but then, without the mother’s consent, they give the children up for adoption. This is what happened to her son. Philomena and Martin’s search begins at the convent and eventually takes them to the United States.
While this is a story of a mother searching for son, it’s also about two very different individuals who form an unlikely friendship. Along the way they have many fascinating conversations that pull the curtain back and reveal more about them. For example Martin is sour and cynical while Philomena is gentle and optimistic. There are also reoccurring discussions on faith. Martin sees faith and the belief in God as pointless. Philomena finds strength in her faith and it permeates every part of her being. Their discussions never fall into sermonizing. They feel natural and believable.
Steve Coogan is mostly known for his comedic work but this is unquestionably a serious role. There is some good humor in the film which works really well, but most of it comes at Philomena’s expense. Coogan mostly plays everything straight and he is fantastic. I’ve often overlooked and underappreciated Steve Coogan as an actor. This performance makes me a true believer. And as expected Dench is amazing. She is such a wonderful actress and she works with an effortless brilliance. In this film she tells more in a close-up expression than some can say with two pages of dialogue. Needless to say her Oscar nomination is well deserved.
Unfortunately Philomena isn’t criticism proof. Despite all of its strengths, there are moments where the script stumbles or Stephen Frears’ direction undermines the great performances. Most of the film’s emotion is earned, but there are tearjerker moments that feel a bit staged. The script also tosses in some glaring ham-fisted political jabs. They come out of the blue without an ounce of smarts or subtlety behind them. These quibbles may not seem major but they are a distraction.
Still “Philomena” is quite the story. While several dramatic liberties were taken with the actual true account, most of them help make this a better film. There are a few missteps and personally there are several films I would rather see get a Best Picture Oscar nomination. But “Philomena” features two sparkling performances and enough humor and heart to win me over.