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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan on a journey to America

Nov. 24, 2013
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When the adolescent Philomena encountered a handsome boy in the funhouse of a traveling circus, she barely knew the meaning of sex. Soon enough, she learned the consequences in small-town 1950s Ireland. Brought before a grim, inquisitorial board of nuns (“Did you enjoy your sin?” one demands), Philomena was sent to the convent to give birth and forced to work in that prison-like institution to “pay her debt.” When her boy turned four, he was taken away, sold to an American couple. Fifty years on the memories haunt her in rapid but telling flashbacks.

Philomena is based on a true story, the account of British journalist Martin Sixsmith, who assisted Philomena Lee in tracing the child she lost long ago but never forgot. Judi Dench endows Philomena with an aura of gravity worn lightly like a shawl draped across her shoulders. Unlike many actresses schooled in Hollywood, she never overplays or over emotes. Philomena continues to find solace in the rituals and confessions of Roman Catholicism, yet was hurt by the sisters of little mercy, whose dogma had devolved into uncaring mortification. If love is the essence of Christianity, in their hands, love had dried into a dead, brittle husk.

Martin and Philomena make an odd couple in this trans-national road picture, journeying from London to Ireland and on to America. No Fleet Street hack, Martin is a former BBC foreign correspondent and member of the intelligentsia imbued with irony and hauteur. Philomena doesn’t get his humorous asides; she is simple and straight as a yardstick, but has a good heart and—as the story unfolds—a surprising scope of human sympathy. Unlike Martin, Philomena likes people.

Under normal circumstances, Martin would never have accepted a mere “human interest story” such as Philomena’s, but after being sacked as spinmaster by an ungrateful Tony Blair, he was out of work and out of sorts. Steve Coogan undercuts Martin’s injured self-importance with a touch of bumbling humor. He becomes likable as he undertakes his assignment from a cynical newspaper editor. When Martin and Philomena travel to the U.S. and find that her lost son was gay, prominent in the Reagan-Bush White House and had died of AIDS, the editor responds breathlessly: “This is perfect for the weekend section.” By then, Martin, who had dismissed Philomena as banal, is almost ready to cry.

British director Stephen Frears (The Queen) resists temptation and brings Philomena to the edge of sentimentality without tottering into schmaltz. An endearing story with a sympathetic protagonist and an unlikely narrator, Philomena’s subtheme concerns the ways and means of spirituality. The aged mother superior responsible for the horrors of long ago is unapologetic and unrepentant. True to the inner spirit of her faith, Philomena wants to forgive.













TAGS: Philomena, Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, David Luhrssen, Martin Sixsmith, Philomena Lee, Stephen Frears, The Queen





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