Directed by Stephen Frears
On the night of the 2014 Academy Awards, I had seen 8 of the 9 Best Picture nominees. Finally, I got to see the one that remained – “Philomena.” And, let me say, it was worth the wait.
“Philomena” is based on the incredible true story of Philomena Lee; an old Irish woman, played by Judi Dench (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role), who had a child out of wedlock while living in a nunnery. As is customary, the Catholic Church sold her baby boy to adoptive parents in America, forever separating Philomena from her only living family. 50 years pass, and Philomena still has heard nothing from or about her son. By chance, recently unemployed journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hears about Philomena’s story and decides a mushy human interest piece could get him back into journalism. The two couldn’t be more different–Philomena is an elderly, devoutly religious woman; Martin is a sarcastic and cynical agnostic man. “Philomena” traces the pair’s steps as they chase flimsy leads and try to find Philomena’s now 50-year-old son.
Judi Dench is as sharp as ever, though she’s frailer and more naïve than we’ve seen her in the past. After only 45 minutes, Dench leaves us all with a tear in our eye and pain in our hearts as Philomena encounters a tragic truth. Only a marvel like Dench has the emotional chops to give you the feels after that short amount of time. Steve Coogan is wry and clever, working with an Oscar-nominated script he helped write. The interactions between Coogan and Dench are delightful to witness, and this remarkable true story comes to life with their moving performances.
As Philomena struggles to discover the truth about her son, her main opponent is the Catholic Church she grew up in. Her faith wavers as she learns what the church has done to keep her from her child. “Philomena” could be seen as combative if it wasn’t told in a journalistic lens, but it merely reveals hard and unfortunate truths. As cinematically entertaining as it is, it’s also enlightening. It’s not all heartbreak, though. This mystery unravels with comedy and inspiration, too. Coogan is a comic at heart, so he works his magic and lightens up a story that can at times be awfully melancholy. At only 98 minutes, the script is surprisingly well-paced – it’s not often that you see a movie based on a true story that doesn’t seem to rush things along or drag things out. “Philomena” earned its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay – it may have even deserved to best “12 Years a Slave” for a win in the category.
It’s a movie that truly deserved to be made, and there is no one who could have made it work like Dench and Coogan. It’s just charming cinema.