Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena."
In 1952, Hollywood star Jane Russell adopted an Irish-born baby, prompting controversy and headlines like "1,000 CHILDREN DISAPPEAR FROM IRELAND." Money had talked, and shady officials had issued dubious passports condoning the export and sale of Irish infants. That story died down, but thousands of Irish children were indeed spirited away. Now the film "Philomena" takes the perspective of a wronged Irish mother coerced, in 1952, into giving her baby away.
In investigating his expose "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," journalist Martin Sixsmith cracked a longstanding mystery by exploring a remarkable case study. Co-producer and co-screenwriter Steve Coogan stars as Sixsmith, recently sacked as an adviser to the Labour party. Lacking direction, he's open to a lead about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), the baby she birthed out of wedlock, and her 50-year distress after her baby was adopted against her wishes.
Though he believes human-interest stories are for "vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people," Sixsmith can't ignore the potential in the story and takes up the task of tracking down Philomena's boy, in the hopes of a reunion. The road begins at an abbey of nuns in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where Sixsmith and Lee meet with polite but firm stonewalling designed to protect both the Catholic Church and aging, ailing nuns.
Nevertheless, in that grand tradition of journalism movies, answers or, perhaps more accurately, bombshells are forthcoming. So, too, is a showdown with the Church, but one that intriguingly deflates that grand tradition of tragic catharsis.
Despite what sounds like awfully hard-hitting drama, "Philomena" is leavened by the buddy-comedy construct built on cynical modern atheist Sixsmith and sweet-natured traditional believer Lee. Philomena starts out blithe to Martin's witticisms, and Martin more concerned with the scoop than showing actual "human interest," but with time, each begins to see the other more clearly and investigate what makes the other tick. Though Coogan's the avowed funnyman, twinkly eyed Dench makes beautiful comic music with him (as a woman whose sense of humor is lacking), and though Dame Judi's the classically trained tragedian, Coogan holds his own when matters get serious.
The shrewd gaze and limber direction of Stephen Frears ("The Queen") help to protect "Philomena" from getting too precious, despite a ripped-from-the-headlines, well, human-interest story that could easily have played like a bad Lifetime movie. Despite cheeky talk of "evil nuns," "Philomena" is careful to suggest that not all the nuns were bad. Still, "Philomena" fairly raises hackles about yet another shameful injustice at the doorstep of the Catholic Church.
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references. One hour, 38 minutes.
- Peter Canavese