Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay for Philomena, based on the book by Martin Sixsmith, is a gentle, inspiring tale of a simple woman whose lifelong search for her son taken from her in infancy becomes a story of heartbreak transformed into compassion.
Judi Dench in the title role imparts to Philomena a subtle dignity and uncomplicated nature which gives her character atheluminosity and quiet wisdom that ultimately prevails against journalist Martin SIxsmith’s cynical, but justified anger. Dench creates a touching and credible portrait of a poor Irish lass, misused by the Catholic nuns charged with caring for her and her illegitimate son, who soldiers on through life, raising another daughter, working as a nurse, and hiding her anguish at the son who was stolen from her for adoption in America. When through a serendipitous meeting with newly unemployed BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, she decides to search for her son, their journey takes them to America and back to Ireland, through the halls of power and deception from the Regan Administration’s intolerance of gays to the Catholic Church’s harsh treatment of unwed mothers. Her ultimate reunion with her son is not the happy occasion she would have imagined; rather it is in coming to terms with his death, that she begins to understand the meaning and confluence of both their lives.
As Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan makes a perfect foil. He plays the veteran journalist with understated, seething rage at the institutions which have wronged Philomena, and while it goes against his crusading sense of injustice, he comes to appreciate the faith and forgiveness which give Philomena strength. Anna Maxwell Martin makes a kind and honest daughter Jane; Sophie Kennedy Clark an anguished young Philomena; Sean Mahon an elusive Michael/Anthony; Peter Hermann his grieving partner.
Stephen Frears’ direction is lucid and picturesque and focuses with an objective sympathy on each of his character’s perspectives and on their inevitable commonality. As he did in The Queen, he is able to raise provocative issues with sensitivity and equanimity, and much like his protagonist in this film, to find a glimmer of understanding for all.