Nothing sets the box office ablaze quite like the quiet emotional journey of an 80-year-old Irish woman and a disgraced, pompous British journalist exploring murky ancestry across two continents.
Philomena is kind of a tough sell. It’s not a feel-good holiday picture or a tour-de-force acting showcase destined to be showered with Oscar kisses. All the movie has to offer is the fact that it’s really, really good.
The peerless Dame Judi Dench plays the title character, a lovingly sweet and jarringly frank Irish woman who is looking for her son. After “dropping her knickers” back when she was barely a teenager, she was sent to a convent to have her shame baby. As if the Catholic Church needed a bigger diversity of institutional sins against children, the nuns proceeded to sell said baby to Americans while keeping Philomena as virtual slave labor. When the recently fired Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) stumbles upon the story, he deploys journalistic skills that had been gathering dust to get at the truth, which somehow involves President Reagan and the AIDS epidemic… And that truth is the truth, which is to say Philomena is based on the real account of Sixsmith’s investigation. Yes, this means that evil nuns in Ireland actually sold babies. But this isn’t about kicking mud into the eye of the church. Instead, the film plays like an intellectual exploration of the active role we play in accepting events in our past and the function of faith. The script by Coogan and Jeff Pope not only cleverly tackles heady thematic components but it plays out almost like a murder mystery, a heritage-based whodunit. Director Stephen Frears keeps things tight, allowing Coogan and Dench just enough space to deliver the resonance the film needs.
And really, hats off to Coogan. Not only did the oddly toothed funnyman help write the darn thing, he stands toe-to-toe with one of the greatest living performers and doesn’t flinch. For her part, Dench crafts a complex character that cannot be dismissed with some adjective affixed to the words “old lady.” She is inspirational and irritating, kind and shrewd, daffy and insightful. Dench is given the span of one line of dialogue to sell the film’s take-home message, and she makes it look like it wasn’t even a challenge.
Two notes of interest: first, the MPAA originally gave Philomena an R rating. The stars had to crusade to get it reduced, which is mind-boggling, considering the only offense was a handful of F-bombs (at least two of which were technically Irish slang). That’s just a reminder that a heartfelt film about emotional absolution was considered inappropriate for 13-year-olds but Wolverine can skewer ninjas ad nauseam. Second, Philomena is an example of a “based on a true story” flick that absolutely thrives. Why? Because it’s not about trying to replicate events but trying to infuse those events with new meaning.
Philomena is a delightful surprise, a finely crafted yarn told by skilled storytellers all around. It may not be found across “best of 2013” lists, but that’s not on the movie, it’s on the list-writers.
— This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.