A sweet old woman searches for her long-lost son with the assistance of a cynical freelance journalist who's hungry for a meaty human interest story. That one-sentence description of Philomena is accurate, but it barely scratches the surface of the themes and ideas addressed by this magnificently acted and gently moving two-hankie drama.
Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity), the film is also about the intersection of religious faith and religious guilt, about the contrast between believers and non-believers (and between real Christians and hypocrites), and about the need to forgive others. It shows how the true measure of a person is in how he or she responds to personal crises and setbacks.
Yet it also works perfectly well as a surface-level story about a mother looking for her child. That's where the film's greatest emotional impact is found, thanks to the inherent, universal sentiment of that scenario -- who wouldn't cry? -- and to Judi Dench's unreservedly endearing central performance.
It's based on a true story recounted by Martin Sixsmith in his book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and adapted for the screen by Steven Coogan and Jeff Pope. Coogan himself plays Martin Sixsmith, a British journalist-turned-spin-doctor who has been sacked from his government job (the film's set in 2002-03) and is casting about for a new project. He hears about a retired Irish nurse, Philomena Lee (Dench), who has been struggling in vain to find the son she was forced to give up nearly 50 years ago, when the lad was 2 or 3. Philomena was a pregnant Catholic teenager in Ireland in the 1950s -- one of history's worst combinations. She was sent to one of the church's "Magdalene convents," where she and other unwed mothers worked as indentured servants as penance for their sins while their children were given up for adoption.
Martin, cut from the mold of hard-nosed journalists, views "human interest" stories with disdain, on the grounds that they are not real news. He's also a lapsed Catholic, now an atheist, or something like it. (Asked why he walked out of a church before the service was over, he says, "I don't believe in God, and I think He can tell.") But with no other immediate prospects, and sensing a larger story at play here, he meets Philomena and agrees to help her find long-lost Anthony. Their journey takes them back to the convent and eventually to America.
The film thus takes the familiar shape of a pleasant story about mismatched duo on a shared quest. For all the elements that make you cry (both tragic and sweet), there's also a lot of comedy to be found, mostly in the contrast between Martin's exasperated cynicism and Philomena's unfailing kindness and optimism. Though she worked for three decades as a nurse and isn't exactly naive, she has the small-town mentality and limited range of experiences of a sheltered aunt nourished by, as Martin puts it, "Reader's Digest, the Daily Mail, and romance novels." She's delighted by everything: chocolates on the hotel pillows, the free beverages on the plane, the "little bits of toast" that you can put on salads at the buffet. You'll want to spend much more time with her than the film's 98 minutes allow.
I won't tell you how the search ends, but I will say that it's surprisingly tender and powerful. Once the question of where Anthony went is resolved, Philomena grapples with the other questions: was he better off in his new life than he would have been with her? Did he ever think of her, or wish to find her? Was the heartbreak she suffered all these years no more than she deserved because of her sins? And who's to be held accountable for the awful crime of taking a child away from his mother?
On that point, the movie comes to its most instructive piece of dialogue. Martin, outraged by an injustice perpetrated against Philomena, and face to face with the people responsible for it, can't understand why she isn't fuming too.
"I'm angry!" he says.
Philomena's calm, almost pitying reply: "It must be exhausting."
That's Philomena in a nutshell. Mourn for your losses, of course, and be sorry for the opportunities denied you. But why be angry, especially about something you can't change? If someone hurt you in the past, and isn't in a position to hurt you more in the future, why cling to the grudge? Why remain bitter and resentful? Philomena has lived her life by this principle, and in so doing has allowed herself to be happy despite the tragedy of her early years. It's an uplifting end to a quietly remarkable film.