The movie Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and produced by Gabrielle Tana, is based on a true story, narrated in the investigative book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Marin Sixsmith. I cannot imagine if this excellent movie could have had as strong an impact on the minds of the audience, had it not been for the awesome performance by Judi Dench, as Philomena, a character who has been so wronged but one who lives her life in the here and now, with optimism, with childlike naivety, with curiosity about the world, with an ability to see good in everyone, and with a tremendous capacity to accept the strange twists and turns of life; and above all, to forgive.
This is a story that begins in Ireland, in 1952. Young Philomena, beautifully played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, is orphaned at an early age, and is put in a convent, under the care of the nuns. She gets pregnant, during her teen years and it greatly displeases the stern Irish nuns. They let her endure her intensely painful breech birth, without painkillers, as a penance for her sin, and then along with other teens in similar circumstances, she endures further punishment in grueling conditions, in virtual slave labor, in the convent laundry. She and other young mothers are allowed to see their children only an hour, a day, but the anticipation of that hour, brings spring in their step, lights up the fire in their hearts, and enables them to endure the harshest of conditions.
However, unbeknownst to the young mothers, the nuns arrange for the children’s adoption, in lieu of the money it brings them. Philomena’s child is thus “sold”. But far from being a sentimental tear-jerker, the movie has mystery, detective elements, comedic fun, and elements of spirituality, without being preachy. After a long period of almost 50 years, when Philomena finally decides to find her son and put to rest the questions in her mind and pain in her heart, she tells her daughter, about the son who was snatched away from her. Her daughter approaches Martin Sixsmith (expertly played by Steve Coogan), an investigative journalist, who has recently lost his job. At first, he refuses to take on this new story, saying, he would be working on writing Russian history and that he had no interest in this story because “human interest stories are for week minded, ignorant people”.
But at some point Sixsmith takes the story on and embarks on an investigative assignment, on behalf of a local media organization, with Philomena, to find out what happened to her sweet, sensitive child who was taken away from her, at a very early age. What happens next is their incredible journey through painful, beautiful, accepting, voicing, funny, sad, evil, good elements that spans across two nations divided by an ocean, political party at odds with reality, and events too painful to accept but enormously disturbing to not accept. The journey unfolds a deep down, subconscious level yearning of a child to get to the roots, the love of the mother that never rests until she has the answers, and a love that is too strong to hold on to any hate for the wrongs done to her and her child.
Philomena is a complex character. She is raised in a convent, is very religious and prudish, yet admits to having enjoyed her liaison that got her in trouble; she does not blame the nuns but will not rest until she can find the answers; matter of factly accepts her son’s homosexuality but almost falls apart at the thought that her son might not have cared for his homeland or inquired about his mother. Philomena takes child-like pleasure in large free buffet breakfast bar in the hotel but at one point is willing to sell all that she owns so she can pay off the media organization sponsoring the investigative work, so her story does not have to be told; she forgives the nun whose evil, thoughtless deed caused so much pain but decides in the end, that her story must be told. Only Judi Dench could have carried off this role and she did it with total aplomb.
Whereas Philomena has unshakeable faith in religion, Martin is a skeptic. Whereas Philomena wants to accept and forgive, Martin wants light shined on evil for accountability and responsibility. Whereas Philomena is hugely optimistic and her curiosity is endearing, Martin suffered some anxiety and depression on account of his career setback. Whereas Philomena’s jokes are simple and funny, Martin can be sarcastic. Their interaction is beautifully balanced and saves the movie from relapsing into a sentimental tear-jerker or an apathetic investigative report.
Philomena is a well directed, beautifully acted movie and on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being excellent, I rate it 4.8.