I know I’m probably a little late getting onto the bandwagon, but Judi Dench is an amazing actress! Her eyes are like twin oceans that reflect her character’s feelings, whether stormy or sunny, to an absolute tee. And although some people might find Stephen Frears’ biopic drama Philomena trite or predictable, I thoroughly enjoyed and it’s touching tribute to motherhood. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a simple woman- kind, a little eccentric, and privy to the simple joys that life provides. What she lacks in worldliness she makes up for in good cheer and her big heart.
But something in Philomena’s past haunts her well into her twilight years. As a girl, Philomena had a little boy named Anthony who was taken from her and given to an American couple by the nuns that kept her as an indentured servant to work off her sins as an unwed mother. Not exactly living out the example of Christ, these nuns have refused to tell her over a span of dozens of years what became of Anthony, and despite being the mother of another grown child, a daughter, Philomena’s heart aches to discover Anthony’s whereabouts and to involve him in her life.
That’s where Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan,) a disgraced journalist, comes in. Against his own better judgement, the cynical Martin is recruited by Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) to locate Anthony and reunite him with his aged mother. Thus, begins a funny, sad, and bittersweet journey to Ireland, Philomena’s birthplace, the U.S., and finally, home again (hopefully with son in tow.) On the way Philomena challenges Martin’s atheism and grim viewpoint on life in general, and Martin is gradually buoyed by Philomena’s infectious attitude.
If you enjoy well-acted, gently quirky and sweetly predictable British dramedies that showcase the best humanity has to offer and heart-tugging plots, this movie is for you. I know what I like, and I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of movies, which seem soft and cozy enough to lull you to a peasant catharsis but real enough (compared to their U.S. counterparts) to take seriously. They’re the movie equivalent of comfort food, with laughs and tears along the way.
“Philomena” is sad, but not in the nihilistic soul-crushing way a Von Trier movie is sad. It is funny, but not in the way a crude teen comedy is funny. It has just enough reality to make you think and just enough fantasy (like the prerequisite and entirely fabricated scene where Coogan gives his speech about decency and basic human rights to the geriatric, cold-hearted nun (Barbara Jefford) that sent Philomena’s son away in the first place and not an eye is dry in the house) to be warm and familiar, like a well-worn blanket.
Yet, despite the familiar territory and the paper-thin supporting characters (Including Game of Thrones‘ Michelle Fairley as Martin’s implausibly soulless editor, and Martin’s wife (Simone Lahbib), who appears at the beginning to complain about his emotional unavailability and scarcely seen or heard from again), the movie works, and contains a handful of genuinely touching moments that will move you to tears.
If “Philomena”‘s intent was to move me, it has duly succeeded. If it’s intent was, also, to make me curious about the real Martin Sixsmith’s book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,’ it has succeeded in this regard too. “Philomena” won’t rock anyone’s world with particularly innovative filmmaking and storytelling, but can’t us softies have our comfort food to watch as well as to eat and drink? For a taste of bittersweet, heartwarming, and maybe a little formulaic British cinema, look no further.