One of the best picture (2013) nominees vying for 4 Oscars Sunday, this amazing true story may not be the most stylistic or flashiest best picture nom, but the story is nothing less than riveting. Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, a retired nurse living in modern London. After keeping a secret for 50 years, Philomena played by the divine Dame Dench suddenly divulges to her daughter that she had an illegitimate son, as an 18 old girl living in Ireland.
In 1952 Ireland, pregnant unmarried girls had little choice but to go to a convent for the duration of the pregnancy. Philomena’s mother died when she was little and her father, shammed when he finds out, abandons her at the Sean Ross Abbey, where she is forced to sign away her rights to her child. Thus seals the fate of Philomena and her son as well as hundreds of other young women and their children.
When Philomena seeks the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steven Coogan), a recently sacked top notch journalist, he first hesitates as he talks condescendingly not only about human interest stories, but about the people who like him. However job offers are not exactly flooding in and he is intrigued by the story and manages to successfully pitch the idea to a magazine. Philomena and Sixsmith are an odd couple for sure, and most of the humor in the film comes out of their interaction. Sixsmith is cynical and distrustful and Philomena is trusting and forgiving, but as they dig deeper to find Philomena’s son, their bond grows. Although they may have different reasons for wanting the answers to difficult questions, they become equally invested.
Philomena has twists and turns that only a real life story could have. After a major plot point about half way through the film, you are left imagining just where can this film go? As some questions are answered new ones are posed, proving once again, that fact is stranger fiction. One question that Philomena has throughout is: Did her son ever think about her, wonder about her, or talk about her?
Dame Judi Dench gives a remarkably dignified, emotionally accessible performance that never drifts into melodrama or self-pity. Although she is an ordinary retired nurse, she is magnificently noble. She remains forgiving, hopeful, optimistic and amazingly not bitter, even as nuns from Sean Ross Abbey are revealed to be deceitful and downright nefarious. Incidentally, this very well may be the biggest anti-Catholic propaganda film of the year.
Philomena is a unique human story that isn’t easily categorized. The director Stephen Frears continues to make impressive, interesting “small” films that deal with big themes of humanity, while remaining simple and subtle and never grandiose. I also like the Oscar nominated screenplay, by Steven Coogan and Jeff Pope based on Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
Tuesday, May 31, 2016, Watertown, NY