Any sensible person would feel angry about what happened to Philomena Lee, a woman who was unjustly treated just because of a small innocent mistake during her adolescent years. When she found herself getting pregnant after one passionate encounter with some young guy at the carnival, this young Irish girl was quickly sent to the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea by her family, and then she was cruelly separated from her young son – and nobody told her where he was sent until a chance was given to her by coincidence after more than 40 years.
“Philomena” takes a restrained but sincere approach to a harrowing real-life story it is based on, and it works better than expected thanks to its competent direction and good performances. As one of the main characters cynically points out at one point, its story is indeed one of those typical ‘human interest stories’ guaranteed to bring out some tears from us, but the movie sometimes surprises us through its unexpected moments of genuine emotions, and it is also engaging as an unlikely journey of two people different from each other in many aspects.
In 2002, British journalist Martin Sixsmith(Steve Coogan) loses his job in the government due to his small mistake which was involved with some problematic e-mail. While bitter and sullen about losing the job, he is seriously considering writing books on Russian history because he will not get a new job for a while, but then he happens to meet Philomena Lee(Judi Dench) through her daughter, whom he incidentally came across at an evening party. He is initially not much interested in her story because he does not like writing about human interest story, but he eventually decides to write an article about her life story, and that is the beginning of their journey toward the whereabouts of her lost son.
During its first part, the movie shows us Lee’s difficult past through the series of flashback sequences, and we see how Lee and other unfortunate pregnant girls were unfairly treated at the abbey during that time. While being told that they deserved to be punished for their carnal sin, they worked like slaves for seven days a week just because they should pay the cost for their shelter, and most of the nuns at the abbey did not help them a lot even during childbirth. During one sad, haunting scene, Sixsmith comes upon a number of unkempt graves during his visit to the Sean Ross Abbey, and we soon see that they are the graves for girls who died during childbirth – and some of them were buried with their stillborn child.
The movie does not hesitate to take a critical attitude toward this unjustness committed and then covered under the Catholic Church system, and that attitude is mainly expressed through Sixsmith, a sardonic atheist who naturally finds himself in the opposite position while spending time with a woman who manages not to lose her religious faith despite her deep sorrow caused by her church. She still feels hurt by her past, but she never loses her ability to be nice and kind to others, and there is a warm, brief moment showing how easily she can talk with a stranger she has never met before.
That admirable aspect of hers is not affected at all as she and Sixsmith come to discover how the Church was far more cruel and unfair to her. They not only took away her son from Lee for virtually selling him to some rich American couple but also blocked any possible way for her to track down her son, and, as the epilogue title sadly reminds us before the end credits, she and her son were not the only victims.
Fortunately, there is still a chance that they may find helpful clues in America, so Lee and Sixsmith fly together to America, and the movie becomes a little more humorous as Lee enjoys several new experiences during their stay in Washington D.C. Judi Dench, who received the 7th Oscar nomination for her warm, touching performance, effortlessly makes these moments both amusing and sincere, and Steve Coogan, who adapted Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” with Jeff Pope(they were also Oscar-nominated for their good screenplay), is a nice contrast to Dench as your average sulky journalist who is not so good at being nice.
When Sixsmith finally gets a crucial clue about her son later, there are several surprises waiting for them and us as they get to know more about him. Mainly because they are potential spoilers, I cannot tell you more about the rest of their investigative journey, but I can say that the director Stephen Frears, who has constantly made several excellent character dramas ranging from “The Grifters”(1990) to “The Queen”(2006), did a fine job of pulling lots of emotions from the second half of the movie while never making it feel too heavy-handed or manipulative. The movie maintains its low-key mood even during its emotional climax, but the emotions below the screen are palpable, and I must confess that there are two or three scenes in the movie which I found myself quite moved by the emotions contained inside them.
“Philomena” is a plain but heartfelt drama good enough to recommend, and Judi Dench’s performance reminds us again of how valuable her presence has been in many movies she appeared in. When this respected British stage actress became more notable to us through her first performance as James Bond’s boss in “GoldenEye”(1995), she was already over 60, but then she has been vigorously impressing us with more good performances while gathering her 7 Oscar nominations during last 19 years, and she is still moving on like a trouper even though she will be 80 in this year. I sincerely hope we can see more magic from this remarkable actress with such an interesting career like that.