In the midst of noise, overused special effects and all that Oscar bait sits Philomena, a small-to-medium sized film of great talent, beautiful moments, some confusing turns and the inimitable Judi Dench.
Philomena tells the true story of a woman being raised in a convent who has a child out of wedlock. The child is eventually “sold” to a couple who raise him as their own. Toward the end of her life, Philomena would like to connect with him and ask some questions. The story, for a variety of reasons, is picked up by an ex-BBC reporter who can use the break the story might provide for him. And off we go.
It’s pretty much that simple, except for two strengths: its female lead, Ms. Dench, who can do almost nothing wrong on film, and a moment of grace toward the end that is almost astonishing. Ms. Dench is a delight to watch in anything, and a wavering Irish accent is about the only quibble I might have (though as an American, I might be unfamiliar with how strong such an accent might be when one is speaking softly or strongly). It’s an especial triumph in that Dench is playing someone quite a bit less intelligent than herself (think of her role as M in the Bond series), and yet doesn’t signal her own personal intelligence nor she condescend in any way in portraying this woman. Her character is simple on the surface, a good Catholic, and as her reporter friend arrogantly points out, the product of a certain number of limited educational experiences. Yet though the film doesn’t shy away from what could be seen as resident silliness in her personality, there is more to her that is revealed as the film progresses. She is clear and forthright when others are not, because that is who she is. And in all her simplicity, she has something the reporter does not.
There has been some ink spilled about the religious aspects of the film, and they among the weakest parts of the film. The reporter (a fine Steve Coogan) is an atheist, and quite anti-Catholic and anti-faith in general. The nuns are portrayed as liars and greedy manipulators bound by an unhealthy attitude toward sex (yawn), though there are exceptions that apparently only prove the rule. It’s one of the more intriguing aspects of the film that Philomena continues her strong Catholic faith even in the face of its abuses by the religious involved in her case. Yet in spite of her dogged faith in the religion of Rome, she runs into information about her son that one would think she would wrestle with. Yet there is total acceptance of something that would be difficult for many a person of her age and background, especially one of a strong Catholic faith. Yet the film doesn’t have Philomena question it, or even deal with the issue. It’s a curious turn of events, and is a bump in the cinematic road of the film.
The film takes an unexpected course when Philomena finds out about her son earlier than we think she will, and the film changes focus, opening new pathways for her and the reporter to explore. One pathway is a plot point, and stays right on the surface; the other buries itself underneath. It’s the true climax of the film when that hidden journey—one of extending forgiveness—makes it way to the surface. The film shimmers with grace as Philomena, the victim of so much bad treatment and sadness, extends the gift of forgiveness to someone seemingly unworthy of it. That act and her dialogue with the reporter in that scene are moments that lift the film to an entirely new level.
Under director Stephen Frears’ (The Queen) hand, the performances are uniformly solid. The story is deftly told, with equal parts humor and poignancy. As a character study by one of our great actresses, the film succeeds. And in spite of its occasional intriguing twists and questionable turns, the film ascends at the end while keeping its lovely lead’s feet squarely on the earth.