by Steve Habrat
When assessing this year’s long list of Academy Award nominees, a good majority of the films that have landed nominations are mainstream pictures. Perhaps the most obscure (I use “obscure” rather loosely here) nominee would have to be Philomena, the newest dramadey from director Stephen Frears, the man who also gave us High Fidelity and The Queen. Based upon the extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee and her 50-year quest to find her son, Philomena finds Frears crafting a charming odd couple story that never forgets to press all the weepy emotional buttons that Academy members just can’t resist. With the script, penned by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, swinging smoothly between comedic and poignant, Frears can let his stars, funnyman Coogan and Judi Dench, really make the sparks fly. The drastic differences in their personalities comprise most of the chuckles, and watching a naïve woman of God butt heads with an atheist political journalist makes the hour and a half runtime fly by at the speed of light, leaving you wonder where the time just went. It’s chemistry at its very finest.
Philomena introduces us to Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an aging Irish nurse who has been desperately searching for her missing son for fifty long years. It turns out that in 1951, Philomena got pregnant at a fair, and as punishment was sent to Sean Ross Abby, an isolated convent in the Irish countryside. While working at the convent, Philomena is allowed to see her son, Anthony, for only an hour a day. One day, Philomena is horrified to learn that a wealthy American couple has adopted Anthony and moved the boy to the U.S. Over the years, Philomena’s grief over her loss has gotten worse. Meanwhile, Martin Sixsmith has just been fired from his job as a political advisor for the Labour Party. Distraught over his recent termination, Martin contemplates writing a book on Russian history, but his plans change after he meets Philomena’s daughter and he hears her mother’s amazing story. Reluctantly to write a human interest story, Martin is slowly won over after meeting with Philomena and traveling to the convent for answers. With very little information made available to them in Ireland, Martin and Philomena decide to travel to the U.S., where they learn of Anthony’s extraordinary life.
Early into their journey, Martin and Philomena learn a devastating twist in Anthony’s life, a twist that leaves the viewer wondering just where Frears and his screenwriters will take the story next. It’s here that a wealth of discovery gushes forth and picks up the film’s tempo to the point where it feels like the story was told in the blink of an eye. The secrets of Anthony’s life are certainly absorbing, this the viewer cannot deny, but his background takes second place to the exploration of faith versus atheism. It’s truly incredible to watch Philomena hold on to her faith, even when her faith had turned on her and ripped her life apart. On the flipside there is Martin, an atheist who is constantly biting his lip and looking for an opportunity to attack those who have wronged the poor, sweet Philomena. While a majority of this plays to the sensitive side of the film, there is also plenty of humor to be milked from it. It’s hard not find Philomena’s naïve wonder to be funny, especially when she is in awe over things like chocolates on her pillow in her hotel room and her fascination with a foreign chef cooking up her breakfast. Naturally, this all gets on Martin’s last nerve, tempting him mutter veiled sarcastic remarks to the beaming Philomena. Despite his efforts to keep a bit of distance between himself and Philomena, Martin isn’t immune to this woman’s misty-eyed grief or twinkling charms, and it is increasingly heartwarming to watch him stand up for her.
When discussing the central performances of Philomena, funnyman Steve Coogan expertly adapts his comedic wit to fit with the more dramatic tone of the picture and it truly does show off his wealth of talent. The earlier scenes of the film find Coogan sneaking in his dry sense of humor, but when the drama rises, Coogan displays impressive confidence, leaving you hoping that he explores more dramatic turns in the near future. And then there is Judi Dench, who really earns her Oscar nomination as the impossibly sweet Philomena Lee. You instantly fall for this little old lady who clutches to breezy romance novels and an eagerness to forgive even when she is being ridiculed by a handful of glowering nuns. Overall, Philomena is a film that seems to have come from the hearts of the filmmakers and headlining stars. It’s moving, comical, smart, and down-to-earth, completely lacking the sensationalized touches that Hollywood usually insists on for these true-story crowd-pleasers. This is a must-see buddy movie that you won’t be able to pull away from.