By Joan Ellis
Don’t let anyone tell you Philomena is a warm and fuzzy movie.
It is profoundly moving with a deep reserve, intensely provocative with a sharp edge. On the first count, the movie opens with a heartbreaking scene of teenage “Philomena” sobbing as her son is driven away by his newly adoptive parents from the Irish Catholic abbey that has sheltered them. A group of unwed mothers is told repeatedly that they have sinned and that the punishment that will bring them closer to God is to work seven long days a week in the abbey laundry.
Jump ahead 50 years to Philomena (Judi Dench) in her 60s, still a believer, an observant Catholic who has found an internal way to forgive everything the sisters have done to her in the past. She has also thought about her son “every day since the day he left” and has decided she must find him before she dies. Unwavering in her determination, she teams up with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist now at a low point in his life.
For Martin this could be a good story that would put him back on track. For Philomena, it could be her life’s emotional capstone. She needs to know if her son ever wondered about his mother.
The trail for the new pair leads to America and many revelations, and then full circle back to Ireland where Martin, incredulous at the duplicity and corruption at the abbey, loses his composure. His explosion is a lightning bolt in our current culture where revelations within the church surface with disturbing regularity.
After the unexpected fire of the scenes between Martin and the sisters, we wonder why the culture of the Catholic Church has thrived, unexplored, for generations. It is the same question that followed “12 Years a Slave.” How is it we are so successful at not learning what we don’t want to know?
Steve Coogan creates in Martin a troubled man who is given a reason to come alive again while responding to the needs of a woman who cannot succeed without his help. When his research reveals the whole picture, Martin’s own anger blends with loyalty to the strong woman at his side to trigger an attack on the sisters.
Coogan, who teams beautifully with Dench, also cowrote and coproduced the film. With his razor-sharp script, he avoids both the melodrama and sentimentality that might have diminished the story.
The movie is wrenching because Judi Dench portrays Philomena with great respect. It had to be daunting to create a woman steadfast in forgiveness in the face of sustained cruelty. Whatever Dench touches becomes real, and this true story is heartbreaking because of her sensitivity. She takes us on the two paths of Philomena’s spiritual life: Faith in her church and love of her son and shows us the strength of a woman who refuses absolutely to blame one for trying to destroy the other.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.