Six of this year’s nine best picture nominees are “based on true events”. Philomena is one of them.
When former journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is dismissed from the Labour Party in disgrace, he is at a loss as to what do. That changes when a young Irish woman approaches him about a story of her mother, Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench), who had her son taken away when she was a teenage inmate of a Catholic convent. Martin arranges a magazine assignment about her search for him that eventually leads to America. Each of them is shamed in their own way – Philomena, for the having a child out of wedlock, and Martin for political scandal; and along the way, Martin and Philomena contemplate shame, loss, love and discover as much about each other as about her son’s fate.
Very often we groan at the phrase “human interest story” – usually a fluff piece, “a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people” (as Martin Sixsmith puts it).
On paper, Philomena could simply be a story of a woman searching for her son – but on film, it is much more. Everything about this film is just…lovely. It’s a thoroughly moving, funny and poignant film, that by no means ventures into sappy “lifetime movie” status. It doesn’t preach or patronize – it wows us with its subtlety and pragmatic take on loss, love, sex and religion.
Philomena has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay – and with good reason. The film was a complete surprise to me. Quiet and unassuming on the outside – but full of so much hope and life.
Too many films seem to try out the “Odd Couple” routine. It’s formulaic and safe – but in Philomena, the odd couple is the heart of the film. Director Stephen Frears keeps the focus on the mismatched pair: Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the “put upon” BBC journalist, rolling his eyes and cracking witty snark at his compatriot Philomena Lee (as played by Dame Judi Dench). Philomena is all life, love, and veiled regret. It’s hard not to fall in love with this character. That Judi Dench…what a Dame! There’s no denying that Judi Dench can do so very much with so very little (given her Oscar win for a mere 8-minute portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love) – but here, she’s given a complex and real character, and the result is magic.
The film takes artistic liberties with the story of Philomena Lee and her quest to find her son, but the truth is no less devastating. The fact remains that the cruel and selfish actions of a few led to the separation of a mother and son at the highest bidding price. The result is a tragedy – that many women and children endured.
Philomena Lee is a truly remarkable person, who has suffered through regret, loss, silence and injustice to find a path to forgiveness. The film is no less remarkable. Philomena is a delightful surprise this awards season.