Philomena Lee was a teenager in rural and very Catholic Ireland when she got pregnant in the early ‘50s. She was turned over to the nuns and, after delivering her son Anthony, she and her fellow unmarried teen mothers were kept in the convent as, essentially, slave labor, while their kids were adopted—sold, essentially—to any Catholic who could come up with the sizable adoption fee. In 1955, Anthony was taken to America, along with another little girl from the convent. Philomena had been made to sign a document renouncing any claim on him.
Philomena later married, had other kids, and had a successful career as a nurse, but needless to say, she never forgot her first child. She tried several times to get information about him from the convent and was denied each time. Eventually a journalist named Martin Sixsmith took an interest in her case, and the two of them travelled to the U.S. where they made startling discoveries about the boy. The result was a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (Sixsmith also wrote a summary of the story for The Guardian in 2009, with the True Confessions-ish title “The Catholic Church Stole My Child.”).
If this story were an old-school stage melodrama or a TV soap opera, it would seem corny and overwrought, down to its tear-jerking final twist. But Philomena, the movie version, isn’t even a little depressing. The director, Stephen Frears, brilliantly treats this real-life tragedy as an odd couple comedy.
Judi Dench plays the gabby, cheery Philomena, an intelligent but unpretentious woman, unfiltered but so warm that she doesn’t give offense to those she chats up. Her openhearted, un-ironic manner wears a bit on Sixsmith—an educated, sophisticated but oddly unlikable cold fish played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the adaptation of the Sixsmith book.
The bracing, self-deprecating wit of the movie helps us manage our fury at the Church’s crimes against Philomena and her son, and God knows how many other families. Sixsmith isn’t able to contain his; his journalistic objectivity dissolves as he unravels the final mystery about Philomena’s son in the climactic scenes.
Yet Philomena keeps her magnanimity to the end, and Dench leaves us with a sense of awe at the grandness of this woman’s soul, even while she keeps on making us laugh. After seeing her so many times as Queen Victoria and James Bond’s boss and other such dour roles, it’s great to see her in what can only be called a lighter vein.
While it isn’t the most remarkable piece of filmmaking I’ve seen this year—the documentary The Act of Killing currently holds that title, and I doubt it will be unseated—Philomena is, I think, the movie I’ve most enjoyed so far in 2013. As cinema craft it’s conventional but polished, and the leads are sublime. If you’re like me, the critical cliché “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” applies.