Some stories simply have to be told; the harshness of life in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries enveloped thousands of ‘fallen women’ unable to live on their own economy, and each of them would have a story worth telling. That of Philomena Lee, however, has so many angles of ambiguity and poignancy that it stands out. The journey she embarked on, with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith, is quite brilliantly portrayed in Stephen Frears’ (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things) latest film, Philomena.
Judi Dench plays Philomena, who has kept the secret of her firstborn’s existence for half a century. On the day that would have seen her son turn fifty, however, she shares the story of his forced adoption to her daughter, who contacts Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in an attempt to secure help. They quickly travel to the convent where the youthful and innocent Philomena had found herself, to glean information about the lost boy from the now aged sisters. Running against a brick wall of silence, the gossip of locals hints at Americans adopting babies from Ireland in the fifties. This sends the cynical and biting Sixsmith, together with the irrepressible Philomena, to Washington to find out more.
The results of the search are not tremendously important, but the various revelations along the way are as frequently uplifting as they are heart-breaking. Philomena is an ordinary old woman, in the stage of her life where she has no need to begrudge anyone anything, and her insistence on politeness is endearing to a fault. Dench’s performance is superlative, with Philomena’s every glance and hesitation feeding the scene she’s in; the film’s tone is almost always defined by Dame Judi’s portrayal. This tone is the picture’s greatest strength – at once a riveting and affecting true-life account, the “human interest story” Sixsmith is so derisory towards, the film is also wonderfully funny. The chemistry between Coogan and Dench defies belief, and the repartee between the characters, especially when Sixsmith’s learned witticisms meet Philomena’s innocent incomprehension, is universally pleasant.
This surprising comedy is perfectly balanced, however, with mature approaches to an impressively diverse range of serious topics, from sexuality and promiscuity to religion and politico-journalistic ethics. Dench wrestles with the actions and pains of her youth, while Steve Coogan also gives a notably natural performance as his character struggles with his own issues, not the least of which is negotiating the progress of Philomena’s search. His work on the film demands praise, as his fine acting is complemented by work on the script and the main production credit. Dench’s own contribution will surely gain a BAFTA nomination, and an Oscar nod is due as well.
Philomena is punctuated by small-scale set-pieces of great weight. From a journey through Stansted Airport, a late night visit to the Lincoln Memorial, or a snowy visit to a convent, the landscape of the film is defined and accentuated by the sharp dialogic scenes which it plays host to. That Philomena is a name derived from a virginal martyr in Catholicism is the sort of painful and yet impossibly fitting irony which so permeates this memorable and touching success.