When we first meet Philomena Lee, it’s easy to tell she’s not herself today. Her eyes are misty, distant, lost in thought. Her adult daughter, heading out to work, stops to tell her mother goodbye when the old woman tells her some surprising news. “He’d be 50 today,” she says, holding up a faded black and white photograph of a toddler. Her daughter is confused, a response that quickly turns to surprise when her mother tells her that fifty years earlier she had a child out of wedlock who was taken away from her by the nuns at the abbey in which she was living. The mystery of who this child is powers Stephen Frears’ Philomena, which becomes a sweet and delicate story about an elderly woman who decides to track down her long lost son and the kind and patient journalist who helps her.
Judi Dench stars in the title role. It’s a wonderful performance in which she convincingly inhabits the meek and polite personality of Philomena. The son taken from her has weighed on her thoughts for so long. At the time, she believed what the nuns told her, that carrying the child, suffering the pains of childbirth, and ultimately letting the baby go is God’s way of punishing her for giving in to sinful lust. And yet there’s been a nagging doubt growing in the back of her mind. How can she, through no fault of her own, be denied access to a life she brought into this world? She now can hardly believe the abstract concept of her missing child is now quite possibly becoming a reality. Her main question is simply, “has he thought of me?”
Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope from the true story as told by Martin Sixsmith, plays the journalist who helps her. He’s here for some wry commentary and sweet banter with the woman. His drive to write an article starts simply as a career move, a way to bounce back from some minor scandal that bounced him out of a high profile position. But he quickly comes to care for Philomena, and she for him. There’s affection there, a sort of maternal warmth between them that becomes, through their journey of investigation, a stand-in for the son she hopes to find. Dench, a quiet marvel, her face creased with every emotion implied while she puts on a brave face, stands in contrast to Coogan, who towers over her and yet finds such compassion underneath his dry wit.
It’s a study in empathy. By the time all is revealed, Coogan has become so invested in the story he’s been researching, he’s far more outwardly emotional than Philomena herself. Dench and Coogan make for a most charming odd-couple as the film follows a sturdy road movie path. It’s simple and nice, tracing comfortable paths to a conclusion that hits with some force. In the end, it is not shocking revelations or cruelty, but simple acts of kindness and forgiveness that are truly moving. Here, Dench and Coogan sell a climax that tidily answers questions raised in ways unexpectedly satisfying and complete. It is done perhaps too tidily, condensing hard real life into something that plays easily on screen. But so what? It plays.
Frears, a quiet, steady presence behind the camera, allows the film to simply exist with a minimum of fuss or insistence, recording fine performances from a skilled cast. Like many of his films – The Queen, High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons – he lets his excellent actors do the heavy lifting, bringing out the script's emotions as they sit pinned in by nice, solid framing. Where it could have gone broad and treacly, it instead finds fragile grace notes of performance that lend it the grace and dignity it deserves. It’s so nice and warm, capturing two mismatched characters on a journey of kindness in performances that are quietly funny and poignant.