Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is celebrating an important birthday today. Not her own, mind you. 50 years ago the young Philomena met a handsome young man at the local carnival and ended up with a prize she didn’t expect. Sent to the local Abbey to have the baby she finds herself indentured to the nuns, working to not only pay for the care of her child but to “atone for her sins.” When her young son is put up for adoption she is devastated, never forgetting the little boy she loves.
Equal parts affecting yet exhilarating, “Philomena” is that rare congress of a talented triangle of acting, writing and directing. Dench is brilliant as the adult Philomena (she recently received her seventh Academy Award nomination for her work here). In spite of her generally outgoing appearance there is a sadness behind her eyes born of five decades of heartbreak. Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the film with British-television writer Jeff Pope, is equally effective in a rare dramatic turn. Best known for his work in comedies like “Tropic Thunder” and “Hamlet 2,” he excels here as former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, on his own journey of redemption after being caught in a political scandal. Special credit must also be given to Sophie Kennedy Clark, whose performance as the younger Philomena matches Dench’s note for note.
Coogan, Pope and director Stephen Frears have managed to make religion the centerpiece of the film without you really knowing they have. Whatever your beliefs, you will silently begin to question them as the film progresses. This is done subtlety…there is no giant hammer hitting you over the head. As the film progresses, from Ireland to America and back, you are constantly mulling over who, and what, was right or wrong. Martin convinces his editor that this will be a “human interest story” but it truly is much, much more.