Philomena ★★★½

I have to hand it to Steve Coogan. In co-writing the screenplay for Philomena, he took a plot that could have very easily become melodramatic and turned it into an interesting character study that seems very much alive and so much more than just the tale of a woman searching for her long lost son.

Coogan’s acting chops ain’t bad either, as the interplay between Coogan’s journalist character Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench in the titular role so wonderfully shows.

Director Stephen Frears handles the script (based on the non-fiction book by Sixsmith) with a sure hand, sparingly using flashbacks when apropos while infusing the story line with enough visual goodness that one may certainly feel as is you are in the back seat, privy to all that goes on.

The story, in case you may not have heard, is a simple one – a young girl (Philomena) has been given over to the nuns by her father (think The Magdalene Sisters and their lovely brand of slavery). While living with the nuns, she is allowed to go to a fair, where she meets a boy and…. What is novel here is that we discover that the young girl has had absolutely no education regarding reproduction, so whatever Catholic guilt one might throw at her situation is tempered by the fact that she had no idea that having sex might result in pregnancy. Wow.

As was typical of the times and the place (Ireland) – the child is born and Philomena, now a “fallen woman”, has no choice but to sign a document that not only places the child into the protection of the abbey, but condemns Philomena into servitude in order to pay for the child’s rearing.

So, for the first four years of the child’s life, his mother is allowed a one hour a day visit – the highlight of her day, which is otherwise spent cleaning laundry. I suppose that having seen the aforementioned Magdaline Sisters, I already had a firm idea of how awful toiling in the laundry (with heavy chemicals burning their hands raw) actually was, so I could see more into these flashback scenes than was actually being shown.

At age four, Philomena’s child is sold into adoption, with the abbey pocketing the fee. Fifty years later, Philomena, a grandmother, still pines for her lost boy. Fate comes knocking when Philomena’s daughter meets a journalist who is looking for a “human interest story”. So off they go, searching through records and archives, looking for the thread that will lead them to the son.

What happens along the way is some wonderful wordplay and bantering between the agnostic journalist and the devout (in spite of everything) Philomena – it is this interplay, wonderfully acted, that raises this film above its melodramatic theme. Dame Judi is marvelous, especially when she is being the rather clueless grandma, as when she chats up a Hispanic server at a buffet; telling him that they don’t get many Mexicans in Ireland – “but we do have those brown skinned lads from India” – that this somehow manages to be charming instead of offensive is the magic of the script and Dame Judi’s delivery.

The film’s themes may come off slightly heavy handed, and obvious, and the memories of Philomena’s time in the laundry not as terrifying as it I’m sure really was, but that is easily explained by them being Philomena’s recollections – and as such are a reflection of her personality – a matter of fact, simple woman who has the capacity for not only love, but for forgiveness. She has chosen not to wallow in her upbringing, but to accept and move on, which shows a special brand of courage.

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