While its title is as simple and unremarkable as the lifeless posters advertising it, Philomena has a lot more going on than some other awards horses coming out the gate this time of year. On the surface, it’s a featherweight film about a cynical man helping a little old lady reunite with her long lost son, one that leans into the age and class gap separating the central partnership for all it’s worth, and then some. Looking to do more though, Philomena works to achieve dramatic balance and comedic tilt out of conflicts between faith and skepticism, wealth and modesty, pomp and practicality, as well as all manner of other unlikely pairings.
The most engaging of its comparisons is the one drawn between fact and truth, and how personal history becomes a narrative when seen from the outside. Martin Sixsmith no doubt wrestled with this distinction when writing 2009’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, just as Philomena co-star and co-writer Steve Coogan likely did when adapting the same story for theaters. After leaving an advisory position inside the British government with questionable grace back in 2003, Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, set out on a journey to reunite Irish-born Philomena Lee with the toddler son she was forced apart from as a teenager. Philomena is “inspired” by those true events, and while you may question the film’s authenticity, the chemistry of leads Judi Dench and Steve Coogan makes amiable hay out of one real woman’s woeful upbringing.
Impregnated out of wedlock in 1950s Ireland, the young Philomena we see in flashbacks is exiled to a nunnery in the countryside. Disowned by her family and shamed by an extra-heavy dose of Catholic guilt, the girl signs over the rights to her son, Anthony, to nuns who take in wayward young mothers as a cheap source of labor. The nunnery is a prison all but in name, complete with iron barred windows, and visiting hours reserved for when the girls can see their children. It also doubles as a baby black market for wealthy would-be parents, and one day, a well dressed, Royce-driving American couple swoops in to take Anthony, like a pair of child-snatching Bonnie and Clydes.
In the modern day, Philomena (Judi Dench) breaks her silence on the eve of Anthony’s 50th birthday, trying once more to track down her son, this time with Sixsmith in tow. Her story of grief, loss, longing and discovery makes for a direct contrast to the objective, just-the-facts-please approach that Sixsmith believes good journalism has to take. “Human interest stories are about vulnerable, weak-minded and ignorant people…made for weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people,” Coogan’s version of Sixsmith says early, establishing the film’s cynical attitude towards mawkish exploitation of one medium (journalism), only to then give itself over to the kind of Hollywood manipulation that turns real world tragedy into a Dame-starring film of purposefully plotted emotional swells and crests.
Considering the timing of its release, and that it’s produced by noted Oscar-hound Harvey Weinstein, Philomena sets itself up to be a nauseating blend of condescension and contradiction of disastrous proportions. But rather than trying to hide its disconnect, Philomena is commendably upfront about trying to have its gooey feel-good cake, while respectfully eating it too. Like Sixsmith having to listen to Philomena excitedly describe a tawdry harlequin romance novel, the urge to roll your eyes is gradually replaced with recognition for the value that broad comedy and melodrama can have on an emotional level, if not always on an intellectual or factual one.
The film’s overpowering sentimentality demands the viewer come to it with grains of salt at the ready, but the flavor mixes nicely with the sourly comic and sweet relationship between Sixsmith and Philomena. Dench, a master of pathos, and Coogan, a master prat, are never far afield when trying on the other’s shoes, though the script usually only lets them swap in moments of righteous speechifying for Sixsmith, and old-ladies-acting-inappropriate shtick for Philomena. The film crafts a tragicomic tone overall, one that frontloads most of the louder, jokey material in the first half, before letting things get heavier once the search for Anthony takes an unexpected turn midway through.
As Philomena’s quest eventually circles back to her own childhood, the film’s indictment of the Catholic Church falls back on caricatures that don’t do its messaging any good. This is where the intermingling of truth and fact complicates things for the worse. Coogan’s Sixsmith spends most of the film trying to create a simple narrative of good guys and bad, but it’s practically handed to him on a silver platter. Perhaps the real Philomena and Sixsmith bumped up against church officials as psychotically dogmatic as the one in the film responsible for keeping the Lees apart, or maybe the film’s emotional payoff required a cutout villain to force a final confrontation. It’s impossible to tell, leaving you wondering if Philomena warps the true story that inspired the film to the point of irrelevance.
But, as a tale of minor redemption for Sixsmith, and major redemption for Philomena, the film works like well-made, unchallenging gangbusters. It’s almost always playing to the cheap seats with the size of its gags and drama, but it knows its way around the heartstrings, and how to play them. By the time the film is turning blatant product placement into a clever plot point, Philomena will have likely won you over -even if begrudgingly.
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are a warm and winning combination in Philomena, a tale that's a little too well-spun.