At the core of Stephen Frears' marvelous new film lies an injustice — an injustice so harrowing, so egregious that mothers around the globe will likely issue a collective shudder during the movie's first 15 minutes. Yet, despite its sobering subject, Philomena, which is based on true events, is humble, warm and peppered with humor.
Judi Dench leads as the feisty, unfiltered Philomena, a retired Irish nurse who was forcibly ushered into a Roman Catholic nunnery and stripped of her baby boy some 50 years prior. Having finally broken her vow of silence about her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Philomena is approached by an uppity Oxford-educated journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who recently received a demotion from a lofty position with the BBC and is grumpily reduced to writing human-interest stories.
The unlikely duo embarks for America in search of Philomena's long lost son, but what easily could have emerged as clichéd sob story instead blossoms into a touching and hybrid tale that's equal parts comedy, mystery and tragedy. The film also does well to tackle complex issues such as morality and classism through its juxtaposing protagonists.
Of the pair, it's Dench who sweeps the screen in take after take, her waxed paper face and piercing blue eyes a delight to watch. Yet unlike in the commanding roles she's assumed in the past, here Dench embraces a quiet fortitude, one that trickles out unexpectedly in-between an affinity for croutons, hotel bathrobes, and romance fiction. Philomena may be one of her most powerful roles to date.
Martin Sixsmith, "News at 10," as Philomena chummily calls him, is the weaker of the two characters. Too entrenched in his own self-righteousness and tainted visions of humanity, Sixsmith has little room to evolve throughout the film. Coogan, who is also the film's co-author and co-producer, plays him well, knowing fully that the longer he's on screen, the more Dench will shine.
If the film has a low point, it's a silly and rather anti-climactic scene at a breakfast buffet in a Washington, D.C. hotel. Philomena chats up a Latino server about Mexico's pleasures (nachos) and perils (kidnapping), while Martin performs an amateur Google search and instantly finds Philomena's son. The likelihood of a former BBC journalist failing to do his homework before trekking across the pond is small, though it does seem sadly appropriate that the news Philomena's been waiting for her whole life is served up with eggs and bacon.
A few scant shortcomings aside, Philomena, which opens area-wide today, is a multi-layered, heartwarming tale that will resonate with mothers, friends and just about everyone in-between. It's a must-see this holiday season.