This is my review of Philomena [DVD].
Depressed by the collapse of his high-flying career as a Labour spin doctor, Martin Sixsmith tries to distract himself with a “human interest story”. Philomena Lee wishes to make contact with the son taken from her nearly fifty years ago by Irish nuns, after they had allowed her to bond with him while slaving in the now notorious convent laundries to pay for their “charity” in giving shelter to an unmarried teenage mother.
Excellent as regards quality of script, acting and direction, this film is by turns unbearably sad and hilarious. Admittedly there are some stereotypes: the bigoted nun who feels that since she has kept her vow of chastity, anyone who has succumbed to sex outside marriage must pay the price for ever, or the hard-bitten editor who wants a good story at any price. There has probably been a good deal of dramatic licence in transferring the real characters of Martin Sixsmith and Philomena to the screen, but played by Steve Coogan and Judi Dench their personalities are strongly developed and complex. Coogan plays a man angered by injustice and determined to root it out, won over by the warm, frank and at times surprisingly broad-minded and perceptive Philomena, who does not hold back from commenting on his frequent cynicism, arrogance and dismissive attitude to those he regards as less intelligent. Dench portrays a still deeply religious yet fun-loving woman, whose simplicity and fondness for trashy TV series and happy-ever-after romantic fiction mask shrewd insight and tolerance. She realises the need to forgive others for one’s own sake, but is not above passing up the chance to expose wrongdoing. Greater love has no woman than to think her child might have achieved a better life without her, after worrying for decades that he might be suffering somewhere, perhaps a hopeless tramp. What counts as a “good outcome” when the essential tragedy of separation for decades has been suffered?
Philomena seems too old to have a son born in 1952 when she must still have been in her teens, but this is a minor point, the price to be paid for casting Judi Dench in the role.