Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan lend an understated charm to Stephen Frears’ new drama. Based on a true story, it is centred around Philomena (Dench), a retired nurse from Ireland who has been burdened with a devastating past.
Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a former foreign correspondent who has recently been forcibly resigned. Dejected and aimless, he is presented with Philomena’s story at a dinner party and decides to take the plunge back into journalism to write about her experience. On first meeting, there is a friction between the two. Martin is posh, ‘Oxbridge’, and stiffly polite; Philomena is sincere, sweetly oblivious (silent when Martin jokes, then laughing when he isn’t) and wears her sadness on her sleeve. She tells Martin how, after getting pregnant out of wedlock, she was forced to work in a Catholic home to ‘repay her sins’, where time with her son was controlled. One day he is taken away from her to be adopted. In a moving flashback we see her as a young woman, weeping at the gate while little Anthony looks out of the car window that drives him away from his mother. Dench portrays this lifetime of loss with an authentic sensitivity.
Martin accompanies ‘Phil’ on a trip beginning in Ireland and then on to America, investigating what happened to her son. Dotted amongst the search for Anthony is the increasing rapport between the unlikely couple. There are endearing scenes, such as Philomena’s recounting of an entire romantic novel to a discerning Martin, or her child-like fascination with their Washington hotel. Their relationship progresses into a mutual affection and we learn that they need each other. Martin is a stable figure who helps Philomena with the practicalities of her situation; Philomena is a warm antidote to Martin’s cynical outlook. Her strong religious beliefs serve as a contrast to Martin’s atheism, as she embodies a forgiving kindness which is refreshing in the modern age of scepticism.
Dench and Coogan’s performances are the main driving force of the film. But though the story is tragic, something falls flat. Perhaps because it is so rooted in true events, there is no real climactic build-up. Rather, it is the journey of the characters which captures your attention. Though it is tender and heart-wrenching at times, it does not leave you with an instant desire to watch it again.