Evaluating actress Judi Dench is akin to watching a great athlete do a high dive or land a difficult jump on ice skates. She nails it so often that you half expect a row of judges to hold up cards with nothing but 10’s on them.
Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears. At cinemas around New England.
by Glenn Rifkin
Sometimes movies remind us of the beautiful spirit of the world in which we live. Other times, they illustrate the worst excesses of man’s inhumanity to man and leave us seething with anger and frustration. Occasionally, if we are lucky, a film accomplishes both ends with a powerful mixture of fine writing, strong directing, and the subtle wonder of great acting. In this category falls the excellent drama Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and starring the miraculous Judi Dench and the surprising Steve Coogan, a British comic actor who turns in an understated and measured dramatic performance with nary a hint of the goofy joking that has made him a favorite in the U.K.
The heart wrenching true story, based upon the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by British political journalist Martin Sixsmith, chronicles the search by a sweet but plucky Irish woman named Philomena Lee (Dench), who has spent the past half century searching for her son. Impregnated as a teen in the oppressively Catholic Ireland of the early ’50s, Philomena is banished to a convent where her baby is born and then, against her will, given up by the cold-hearted nuns for adoption to an American couple who pays 1000 pounds for the child. Despite eventually building a life for herself, Philomena has been unable to fill this empty hole in her heart and she connects with Sixsmith (Coogan), a cynical and jaundiced journalist who is searching for a human interest story to sell to a magazine.
The unlikely pair begin an odyssey to unlock the mystery and find Philomena’s long-lost son, who by now would be 50. The journey begins with a visit to the convent where she was kept essentially as a slave, forced to work seven grueling days a week in the laundry in order to repay her “debt” to the nuns for feeding and housing her for four years. The story of the fate of unmarried pregnant Irish girls in the ’50s in such convents was told brilliantly in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, directed by Peter Mullan. In Philomena, the narrative is relayed through a collage of flashbacks of the young Philomena, desperately attached to her son Anthony and living in paralyzing fear that he might be snatched away from her by these sisters without mercy. The scenes of her breach birth, accomplished without any pain medication (her penance for committing a venal sin, according to the convent’s Mother Superior) and of the subsequent departure of Anthony, staring in innocent surprise out of the back window of a car, are breathtaking and raw. It would be difficult to imagine a more powerful image than that of a child being wrenched from its mother’s arms.
The modern day sisters, seemingly kinder and gentler than their forbears, nonetheless stonewall Philomena and Sixsmith, insisting that all the records from that time were burned in a fire. Philomena, too kind-hearted to believe she is being misled, rejects the journalist’s seething cynicism but both are determined to continue the search. They fly together to the United States and make a life-changing discovery that answers some of Philomena’s questions, though it raises many more.
The incomparable Dench turns in yet another award-winning performance as Philomena. Allowing a character to turn into a cliché is simply not within Dench’s DNA. Here, she avoids the cloying sentimentality that so easily could trap an actress in this challenging role and finds a perfect balance of sadness, determination, and ultimately resolution and forgiveness. She may be in awe of Sixsmith’s smarts and journalistic wiles, but she is not intimidated by his sarcastic ravings about God and the Catholic Church. “You’re a feckin idjit” she finally tells him, fed up with his arguments, unwilling to bend the deeply ingrained religious beliefs that underpin her life.
Evaluating Dench is akin to watching a great athlete do a high dive or land a difficult jump on ice skates. She nails it so often that you half expect a row of judges to hold up cards with nothing but 10’s on them. But what really puts Philomena over the top is Coogan, who not only co-stars but co-wrote the screenplay and is listed as producer. Coogan is a former stand-up comic and impressionist whose talents have made him a star in England but who remains relatively unknown here. He is somewhat familiar because of his minor roles in a series of films such as Night at the Museum and Tropic Thunder. But here’s hoping his turn as Sixsmith vaults him into much deserved stardom on this side of the pond. He has Peter Sellers-level talent and it is shown off in Philomena: he serves as the nimbly perfect foil for his traveling companion. They share a quest, but their motivations are entirely different. What makes the film work so well is that at its cathartic moment, confronting an elderly nun at the convent who played a crucial role in the story’s outcome, both actors stand by their emotional responses. Coogan’s Sixsmith might have been trivialized by being made to experience a transformative moment, but he stubbornly resists, and in him the audience has an ally for its feelings of anger.
You may walk out of the theater infuriated by yet another horror story perpetrated by the Catholic Church. But you will also be deeply moved, admiring Philomena’s remarkable ability, so beautifully portrayed by Dench, to embrace a forgiving God and reach for the lightness and strength of love rather than succumb to the debilitating weight of fury.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic represent a new and exciting direction.