What happens when you take a true, touching, heart-wrenching story more than 50 years in the making, have Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope adapt it into script form and then cast Judi Dench as the title character? You get PHILOMENA. A story that touches the heart with love, laughter and humanity.
Based on the 2009 book by former BBC correspondent, Martin Sixsmith, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee", PHILOMENA is a sympathetic and often humorous telling of Philomena Lee and her 50 year search for her son Anthony who was born out of wedlock to Lee in 1952. A young Irish Catholic girl, when Lee became pregnant, as was done in the day her family disowned her and shipped her off to a convent school in Roscrea, Ireland here she gave birth to her son. She was thereafter forced to either provide indentured servitude for a minimum of three years or pay 100 GBP in exchange for the "love and care" provided by the convent. During her time at Roscrea, Lee and others like her, were only permitted one hour a day with their children. But during her time at Roscrea, that one hour a day would prove to fuel a fire within Lee and Anthony that would last a lifetime.
The nuns weren't all that altruistic in their care for the girls and their children and as was later learned, sold the children to American families wanting to adopt. One of those children sold was Anthony. Lee's last image of him was looking through a top floor window down at his little face peering out of the back window of a car. He didn't know what was happening and neither did Lee.
Keeping her peace for 50 years, it was on what would have been Anthony's 50th birthday that Lee broke her silence, telling her daughter Jane that she had a brother somewhere in the world. This confession put the wheels in motion, sending Jane and Philomena on a journey to find Anthony; a journey that ultimately led them to correspondent, Martin Sixsmith. PHILOMENA is the story of just part of that journey.
As PHILOMENA and Martin Sixsmith, respectively, Dench and Steve Coogan are perfection. Their chemistry goes through the roof. We see a warm, yet funny, mother-son relationship develop as they worry and fuss over each other, while delving ever deeper into the past and the mysteries it holds. The transformation of Coogan as Martin is a very empathetic and sympathetic character arc to watch develop. His coldness and cynicism slowly melt like a glacier as he becomes more invested in Philomena's story. A credit to Coogan as screenwriter are the tonal shifts that occur as the mystery unravels and they dig deeper. With each discovery of something that has been covered up, lied about or, the death of Anthony (who was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents), not only is the story well structured and editing well paced, but Coogan adds nuance to his emotional levels, intensifying his personal resolve and raising his ire. As Philomena starts to fracture and cave, Martin gets emotionally stronger. It's a wonderful emotional dance watching Dench and Coogan in this yin and yang.
With every tear that Dench sheds, she draws you closer to Philomena's aching heart. You can't help but feel as if you are on the journey with her, wanting to ease some of the pain. The dialogue is a delight. As with so many old people considered to be dottering fools, Philomena calls it like she sees it with unflappable innocence. Nothing shocks her. She addresses things with a nonchalant tone that is refreshing, indicative of her age and the wisdom life's experience has brought her. Dench captures that perfunctory frank perkiness succinctly and effectively.
Capturing the very essence of both Dench and the real life Philomena (whom I had the great privilege to meet and interview) is Sophie Kennedy Clark as young Philomena. Kennedy Clark delivers a powerhouse performance fraught with emotion as a young single mother that ranges from giving birth to watching her son wrenched from her life.
While there is subtextual commentary on religion and the church, its secrets, its greed and its hypocrisy, at the core of PHILOMENA is a story and film borne out of a mother's undying love. Coogan and Pope are unapologetic in the script's structure, retaining the edginess of an investigative journalist while allowing sympathy and empathy to organically flow, giving rise to thought-provoking discussion long after the final credits roll.
Director Stephen Frears maintains a visual intimacy throughout the film that keeps one invested and engaged. Sticking with close-up and mid-shots but for a very powerful metaphor of the wide shot at the Lincoln Memorial. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan's lensing is crisp, clear. Powerful is the lensing at the convent with grey and cloudy skies. It's as if you can feel the tears of the children and young mothers as you watch events unfold. A layer of snow in and of itself is so telling - icy, like the hearts of the nuns; but blanketing hidden grave markers as if Mother Nature is bundling a child, while the purity of the snow is reflective of the innocence of the children and mothers. Exquisite touch.
PHILOMENA - a story that took a lifetime, will now touch your heart for a lifetime.
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope based on the story "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Cophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin