Exiled after falling pregnant as a teenager, Philomena (Judi Dench) is forced to grow up in a nunnery where her child is eventually given away to a wealthy American couple. Burdened with the shame of her misdeeds and guilt of letting her child be taken away, she keeps it secret for 50 years before deciding to tell her story and teaming up with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to try to track down her child.
The true story of Philomena is a tragedy twice over, both in what was taken from the poor girl, and also in the unceremonious and unforgiving way life offered up its explanation. Too late for a happy ending and too forgiving to seek justice, resolution is beyond the grasp of the titular character. As Philomena was left out of her child’s story, so too is the film an absent figure in this tale, rarely contributing anything that wasn’t already there and dangers toward being merely a well-acted recount. You’ll absolutely empathize with Philomena and be outraged with the injustice of it all, but a week later it will only be the source story you remember, not the film that offered it to you.
Luckily that source story is an engaging and touching journey that unfolds beautifully around Philomena and Sixsmith. The story comes round full circle for a wonderful conclusion that simultaneously makes what was done to her seem even more criminal, but somehow suddenly insignificant in the face of such a sweet sentiment. It’s also very refreshing that, despite the antagonistic role the Nuns played, it never becomes a statement on the church or the religion it represents. Despite the arguments between the very Catholic Philomena and the very not Sixsmith over the subject, the film itself remains agnostic, blaming the individuals who committed the acts and leaving the rest up to the audience.
Comedian Steve Coogan gives a respectable performance as the world-weary and slightly selfish Martin Sixsmith. While he does have some decent comedic beats, Coogan largely plays the straight man to Dench’s quirks as a lovable and wide-eyed Irish-out-of-water. The fact that Sixsmith is clearly in it for himself, and that he’s quite impatient and snappy to a lead so lovable as Philomena, is quite welcome in a role that could easily play the part of the paragon. Though the turning point for the characters motivations is largely ambiguous and his subsequent reaction to the film’s climax feels quite contrived, the dynamic of a well-realized counter-point is critical to the film being anything more than a Dench vehicle.
It’s certainly hard to fault Dench’s performance here, but you know what to expect going in. Philomena isn’t a character that challenges the seasoned actress, but her charm and humility are impossible not to fall in love with. Defeated yet optimistic, Philomena is incapable of blaming others, torturing herself for her part in giving up the child rather than letting one bad word be said about those that took it from her. Even when all is said and done, her instinct is to forgive rather than harbor anger.
It’s maddening to see such a wonderful woman let the world walk all over her, but that’s sort of the point. Her story is just that; her story. She gets what she needs from the journey, and it’s only the onlooker who demands more. It’s a respectable full stop to put on the film and there’s a real beauty to giving her the ending she wants and to hell with everyone else.
And yet…somehow it still all feels just a little bit safe.
All the ingredients are there, but there is something undeniably uninspired in the telling of this story. While the core plot is excellent, it doesn’t flow organically. Much of the investigation is propelled by Googling and convenient emails, detracting from the sense of discovery that should be driving the film’s momentum. The conclusion is indeed a lovely sentiment, but the filmmaker tries to substitute the phantom fist-pump moment with some silly revelations for Sixsmith that make little to no sense, and are immediately rebuffed.
It’s hard not to feel like the filmmakers checked all the plot points were there and said, “Well, that’s our job done”. Philomena is a great story with some real talent behind it, but you do get the sense the bare minimum was done to see it brought to the cinema. That being said, the bare minimum involves excellent turns from Dench and Coogan, believable and sympathetic leads, and a tragic and elegant real-life fable that blossoms into an inspiring story of familial love in spite of everything life throws against it. It’s hard to stay angry when in the end you feel so touched.