Philomena Lee really did travel from Ireland to D.C., searching for the son she was forced to give up in the abbey she lived in. So much of Philomena’s intrigue and critical interest come from Ms. Lee’s real story, carefully preserved on screen. Accuracy matters in a movie like this, where lesser Hollywood screenwriters could easily change a living woman’s story, invent their own ending, convince us her real journey didn’t play well enough. Beyond this faithfulness is faith, a touchy subject examined here through many characters. We feel the tension between devout Philomena (Judi Dench), who has struggled for fifty years with her shame, and the non-religious journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, surprisingly apt at drama). It’s easy to side with Sixsmith, especially in his confrontation with the rigid nuns; but Dench’s Philomena has a nuanced faith, too. She vacillates between forgiveness and not laying blame to impatience and helplessness. Her son has his own secret, true to life, that resonates with the maternal knowledge she kept hidden for fifty years. Instead of condemnation, the movie focuses on closure. Dench is also quite funny, though she has to deliver too many old-lady one-liners. The script is otherwise charming; Coogan and Jeff Pope write this search for family and identity without schmaltz, aided by Stephen Frears’ confident direction. It helps that everyone is so British.
The real Philomena Lee issued a letter in response to New York Post critic Kyle Smith’s review. It suggests she’s quite the character herself, and that she maintains “a very strong hold on [her] faith.”
One postscript: The ratings battle over Philomena (successfully moved from R to PG-13) demonstrates how superfluous ratings are today. Other than one or two dirty words, there’s no reason teenagers should be restricted from attending this movie on their own. Is a film that critically examines Catholic doctrine more offensive than the violence and sexuality of recent YA-targeted franchises?
For Your Consideration: Best Picture; Director (Stephen Frears); Judi Dench; Screenplay (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope).