Released in the annual onslaught of safe, “important” awards season fodder, Stephen Frears’ Philomena is an assured, entertaining, and genuinely meaningful film not to be missed. The fact-based story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman whose toddler son was sold to American parents by the strict nuns of Sean Ross Abbey, it’s part character study, part journalistic whodunnit, and all-around charming.
On what would be the child’s 50th birthday, Philomena reveals this detail of her past to her previously unaware daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who seeks the aid of disgraced former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Not exactly thrilled to pursue a human interest story, Martin eventually accepts the offer and joins Philomena on her mission to locate her lost son, inspiring the memorable odd couple experience at the film’s heart.
From their first scene together, Dench and Coogan exhibit terrific rapport. Considering the frustration of having her son taken away with no offer of correspondence, the steadfastly religious Philomena nonetheless holds to the belief that she freely gave the child as atonement for committing a great sin. The weight of Catholic guilt is then challenged by Sixsmith’s atheism and somewhat off-putting investigative ways, yielding powerful scenes of clashing belief systems.
Philomena’s contrasting personalities likewise inspire plenty of light and/or awkward moments, ones that Coogan in his co-writer role isn’t afraid to play up. A master comedian capable of inducing breathless bouts of laughter in films like The Trip, here he knows how to balance just the right amount of humor into what’s a fairly serious situation. Such focus produces many charming exchanges, including a standout sequence in which the pair ride through Heathrow Airport on a cart and Philomena tells Martin, in great detail, about the cozy novel she’s just read. In a less accomplished film, the scene might have been played for mean-spirited laughs, but with Philomena being true to her somewhat sheltered self and Martin politely holding back lest he tarnish the trip ahead, the interaction ends up nicely balanced and representative of real nuanced life.
A thoroughly engaging story, Philomena spins its tires a bit in U.S. scenes when the main characters are deciding what to do in their search for the child, but regains its focus shortly thereafter. The complicated goal clearly in sight, Dench and Coogan guide the proceedings with pleasantness to spare, rising to meet the challenges of a story with its share of effective surprises. Films this smart and well-constructed don’t come around nearly often enough, but when they do, they should be seen and celebrated. Act accordingly and enjoy.
Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.
Philomena is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave. and the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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