Friday, January 31, 2014
Former correspondent and government spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) now works as a freelance journalist but struggles to find a subject that pleases his editor Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley) until Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) story falls into his lap. In 1952 a young and pregnant Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was sent to an Ireland convent. During her stay with the nuns she was worked hard as penance for her sin and to earn upkeep for her and her son. She looked forward each day to the one hour she was allowed to spend with her toddler. But even that was taken from her when a family adopted the boy, whisking him away without ceremony. For decades she never stopped thinking about and looking for him, despite the release she signed and the convent administration’s stonewalling. Now Philomena hopes Sixsmith can help find her lost son, and he, in turn, hopes to tell a powerful human-interest story. They begin at the convent, and the intervening years have not softened its intransigence. But the writer picks up a trail that leads to the United States, and it’s off to the colonies for the mismatched duo. The script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, adapted from Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” mixes disparate styles and tones, from that of the oppressive Catholic convent life to that of a journalist exposing potential scandal to an odd couple road movie to a whimsical fish out of water story. However, the conflicting attitudes toward faith and forgiveness that Philomena and Sixsmith each apply on this quest bind these elements together. Her troubled past could readily turn any mere mortal against God or at the very least the Church, yet she remains a devout Catholic with an endless capacity to forgive. On the other hand he, a professed atheist, remains profoundly cynical about religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Yet through this journey they attain understanding and, perhaps, a reluctant acceptance. Under Stephen Frears’ sensitive, understated direction the film refuses to become sappy or overly sentimental, and Dench and Coogan give pitch perfect performances.