Anyone who saw Peter Mullan’s daunting 2002 drama “The Magdalene Sisters” knows the harsh consequences that young Catholic girls in Ireland suffered throughout the 20th century if they became pregnant out of wedlock.
In a cruelly gothic series of “Magdalene asylums” maintained for decades in many Catholic precincts, pregnant teenagers were systematically torn from their families, placed in indefinite servitude in institutional laundries, berated for their moral failings, and often as not had their babies taken away. The last of these Draconian convents closed in Ireland in 1996.
“Philomena” attempts to put a human face on the resulting, long-lingering pain of this system by following one aging Irish woman as she confronts the guilt of her past and seeks to track down the now grown illegitimate son that she lost.
Based on the nonfiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by former journalist Martin Sixsmith, the story was adapted for the screen by writer-star Steve Coogan with the sure-handed aid of director Stephen Frears, one of Britain’s masters of so-called kitchen-sink dramas (an artistic style of social realism).
It’s a modest piece without a great deal of dramatic sizzle, but its secret weapon is casting the estimable Judi Dench in the title role, as the homespun, slightly dowdy Irish woman who lives a modest, uneventful life – watching the telly and absorbing paperback romances. But hidden 50 years in her past is a dark secret.
As a young girl she became pregnant after a brief dalliance and was forced by her parents into a convent. There, she was worked like a slave and allowed to see her baby boy just once a day. After three years, the child was sold into adoption to an American couple, and Philomena was left to wonder all those years what became of him.
Then, enter Coogan as Sixsmith, an earthy atheist with journalistic ambitions who hears of this devout Catholic woman’s story and determines to shepherd her through the journey to find her long-lost son. The rest is a rather straightforward narrative of how this odd couple travels from Ireland to Washington, D.C. and back again in search of answers.
The script by Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope feels rather formulaic at times, as does the developing relationship between the placid, devout Philomena and the ambitious, hard-charging Sixsmith. Also, at times, the script flirts with condescension in its treatment of Philomena and her tolerance for the harshest rigors of her faith.
But with Dench working her magic – she is indeed one of our greatest actors – Philomena rises above the narrative’s slow-moving, old-fashioned conventions and emerges as a deceptively complex and perceptive pilgrim on the road to redemption. It’s a testament to the power of great acting – from both Dench and Coogan – that this slightly starchy domestic drama/road picture gradually turns out to be as engaging and moving as it is.
- Dennis King
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark
(Some strong language, thematic elements and sexual reference)