The Three Rivers Film Festival gave Pittsburgh audiences the chance for an advance look at “Philomena” which has gotten Oscar buzz for Judi Dench’s title performance. This film also received First Runner Up People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and the Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival. The screenplay, based on the non-fiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith, was co-written by Dench’s co-star Steve Coogan who also co-produced.
Martin Sixsmith (Coogan, “The Trip”) is an ex-BBC foreign correspondent who has just been fired as director of communications for Tony Blair’s government. He hears about the story of Philomena (Dench). In 1952 she was a pregnant, unmarried teenager sent to live at an Irish convent. For her “care”, she was required to work in a laundry and was only allowed to see her son Anthony for an hour a day. When her son was three, Philomena is devastated to discover that the nuns have given him up for adoption. For fifty years, she has kept her past a secret and has not been able to find out what happened to her son. She wonders if he ever thought of her.
Martin meets Philomena and is intrigued by her. Feeling “mildly depressed” at being sacked from his job, he pitches the idea of a story about Philomena to an editor, emphasizing tabloid-like details of the case. The editor agrees to cover expenses of the investigation. Martin and Philomena join to discover her son’s life after she lost contact with him. A visit to the original convent (with an incongruous framed photo of a Hollywood star) proves fruitless. Martin discovers that Anthony was among Irish children given up for adoption to American Catholics. After Martin unearths some clues, he and Philomena fly to Washington, DC, hoping to find Philomena’s lost son.
The well-written screenplay depicts a journey of discovery between two very different people. The diversity builds up the drama. Despite all the sadness of her life, Philomena has remained devoutly religious, reluctant to assign blame for the loss of her son. Told to believe that her pain was her penance, she remains deferential to authority. Martin is cynical and combative, referring to the “Sisters of Little Mercy”.
The lead actors create distinctive characterizations and play well off of each other. In a more serious role than usual, Coogan successfully shows Martin’s determination and growing outrage at what had been done to Philomena. Dench gives a masterful performance of deep emotional range. She smiles with happy remembrance of a past pleasure of Philomena’s and has an enthusiastic enjoyment of travel luxuries, not part of Philomana’s daily life. Dench’s expressive face poignantly conveys Philomena’s deep anguish at the loss of her son and the uncertainty of his fate.
Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) expertly mixes comedy with the more serious elements of Martin and Philomena’s search. Suspense builds as their investigation takes some unexpected directions. The film is continually absorbing and builds to a very moving conclusion.