Editor’s Note: The triumphant return of Apprentice Critic Elaine Teng!
In pitching the story of Philomena Lee to his editor, journalist Martin Sixsmith sells it as “a human interest story,” a journalistic form he initially finds somewhat beneath him. But he, like us, quickly learns that this old Irishwoman’s poignant quest to find her long-lost son is a story of family, friendship, guilt, change, and above all, faith. “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears and based on true events, is not ostentatious or innovative, but its simplicity and clarity allow the power and the emotion of the story to shine through.
Abandoned by her family as a child, Philomena (Dame Judi Dench) lived and worked as a young laundry hand at a convent, where she and the other single mothers who sought refuge there work to earn their keep and are only permitted to see their children for an hour a day. Unbeknownst to them, these illegitimate children were actually put up for adoption, with the convent pocketing the profit—a fate that befalls Philomena and her son. Having kept this to herself for 50 years, she enlists Martin (Steve Coogan) to help find her child. The investigation takes them to the Irish convent and even to America, during which time a touching relationship develops between the unlikely friends: the cynical, Oxford-educated journalist who quotes T.S. Eliot and the devout, scatterbrained old woman with a purse full of paperback romance novels.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Dame Judi Dench, who, with a quiver of her lower lip or a momentary aversion of those ice-blue eyes, can convey half a century of silent suffering. She commands the screen, bringing a gravitas that adds an air of martyrdom to Philomena’s suffering. And yet the film’s greatest success is its balanced depiction of faith and religion. While such a story can easily be written off as a one-sided takedown of the church—and indeed the convent in question has vehemently denied the film’s accusations—the film refuses to condemn or condone, depicting both the folly and the power of faith, along with its many divergences and permutations. The nuns of the convent may have committed acts too inhuman to comprehend, but Philomena understands that this behavior was not due to spite or cruelty, but to the same ardent faith that leads her to forgive, to trust God and to continue to pray for her son. Philomena even objects to Martin’s use of the word “evil,” rebuffing its icy finality and sweeping judgement.
As brilliant as Dench and sidekick Coogan are, however, they are but servants to the story, the vehicle through which the real Philomena Lee and her son tell their incredible tale, one that spans two continents and five decades. Director Stephen Frears even managed to incorporate home movie footage from the real son’s life, adding a layer of authenticity to the film and reminding us of the very real stakes of Philomena’s search. Such simple, down-to-earth story telling—utterly devoid of flashes and bangs, but focused on real people, their feelings, mistakes, and joys—grows increasingly rare in the U.S.
A film such as “Philomena” is sometimes disdainfully deemed “middlebrow” and overlooked, other than by a handful of enthusiasts. Yet such a dismissive term, which unfairly paints both the work and its audience as mediocre, seems to imply that such films are somehow less worthy. Less worthy than what? “Small” movies, without large budgets or big themes, can still be well made and worthwhile, no matter how timeworn or everyday their tales might seem. Not only is the anatomically-confused term undefined—is something “middlebrow” due to its content or its approach?—but it also suggests that stories about normal people and their little problems, told in a way less than experimental or artsy, are somehow second-rate. But when arthouse films are screened in tiny backrooms to only a handful of critics, and the explosions from the endless superhero movies blur together, what could be more accessible? What could be more important?
Now in theaters.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars