Posted November 27, 2013 by Daniel Hodgson in
Good movies are rare. That’s what makes Philomena so special: it’s two good films in one.
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) journey across the U.K. & the U.S. to find the child she was forced to give up 50 years earlier when she became pregnant as a teenager. Philomena is a devout Catholic, who lived in an abbey at the time of her pregnancy. She hasn’t seen much of the world, and her unfamiliarity with a famous T.S. Elliot quote tells you something about her education. Sixsmith, on the other hand, is a world-weary atheist. He can be short with people, and Philomena’s endless chattiness gets on his nerves. But she needs his sharp eye and investigatory skills that come from his journalism experience to find her child, and her case gives him a new sense of purpose after having lost his job. The chemistry between the two characters is an essential ingredient in a road trip film.
But Philomena has greater purpose than the average film of that genre. At its heart, Philomena is a mystery, driven by questions. Is her son now alive or dead? What is he like? How has his life turned out? And most importantly, did he ever think about her, as she thought about him every day since their forced separation? and did he ever try to find her?
The screenplay, co-written by Coogan, plays quickly between lighter and heavier notes, and both Coogan and Dench are up to the task. I was surprised at just how much comedic prowess Dench demonstrated, who holds her own with comedy veteran Coogan. She gets one of the film’s best laughs, delivering its punch line perfectly.
While often tonally light, Philomena touches on heavy themes, but doesn’t get weighed down by them, or give in to the melodrama of the subject matter, although it pulls its punches a little more than it should. While critical of Catholicism and skeptical of God, it recognizes that the teachings of Christianity have value. When individuals or institutions may wrong us, we can spend the rest of our days thereafter holding a grudge against them, or we can forgive them their trespasses, as they forgive ours.