Judi Dench’s ‘Philomena’ Is The Least Sentimental Tearjerker You’ll Ever See
Philomena dramatizes the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman in her 70s, forever wounded by the forced adoption of the son she gave birth to at a convent 50 years before we meet her. Philomena tells her adult daughter, Jane, about being dumped by her family at Roscrea Abbey as a pregnant teen, left to the tender care of the nuns. In flashback, we learn that while the sisters gave her and her baby a home, they also never stopped reminding her of her sin — these are not your quirky Sister Act nuns, these are your wrath-of-God Magdalene Laundry nuns. Eventually, without any warning, her Anthony is given to an American couple to adopt, and Philomena never sees him again.
Jane connects Philomena with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC journalist forced out of the Blair government and looking for something to work on other than his resentment at his unfair sacking. A hard-news bigtime journamalist, he’s not a fan of “human interest” stories, which he initially dismisses — to Jane’s face, right after she’s described her mother’s situation — as “stories about weak-minded, ignorant, vulnerable people, to be read by weak-minded, vulnerable, ignorant people.” But as Philomena tells him about the nuns’ callous treatment of her and the other convent girls, he starts to smell a story, and so begins a sometimes prickly partnership between the average working-class mother and the worldly journalist, a buddy movie with a transatlantic mystery, a decidedly unsentimental journey into questions of loss, memory, justice, and forgiveness.
Director Stephen Frears, working from a screenplay co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, crafts an emotionally charged story without straying into either sentimental cliché or angry ranting — and there’s plenty to rant about, as Philomena and Sixsmith (there’s no avoiding it — we know her by her first name, and him by his professional identity) find that not only had the convent sold babies for adoption and covered it up, the nuns also continued, even into the movie’s present day, to block efforts of adoptees and mothers to find each other. It’s no great spoiler to mention that Sixsmith finds out, shortly after the two arrive in America, that Philomena’s son died in 1995; he was a top lawyer in the Reagan and GHW Bush administrations, a gay Republican who died of AIDS after working for two presidents who hardly talked about the disease.
Dench and Coogan play brilliantly off each other — Coogan’s Sixsmith is cynical, arrogant, given to moral outrage that seems perfectly justified but also a bit futile, and Dench’s Philomena is a woman who has lived so long with her unjust loss that she’s managed to handle it with grace — not acquiescence, but quiet decency. He keeps planning to write a serious book about Russian history, and she unironically loves the plot twists of paperback romances. And Philomena is a stable counterweight to Sixsmith’s sputtering rage at the nuns and their blissfully evil manipulation of people’s lives.
And dear god is Judi Dench a beautiful old woman in this movie! Her Philomena can come off at moments as a cheerful sap, but that’s a setup to trap the audience into underestimating her. There’s steel under those wrinkles; we expect her to be shocked at the news that her son was gay, but she’s hardly surprised at all — what she really wants to know is whether he ever thought about his mother.
Frears’s invocations of loss and memory are some of the strongest moments in the film — we get grainy home movies of the little boy in his new home in America, simulated videotapes of him as an adult with his boyfriend, and we see the love and loss in Judi Dench’s eyes. Philomena is a tear-jerker, but never schmaltzy or even sentimental — it’s emotionally honest, and that’s heartbreaking enough.
I should probably mention that, as Philomena opened last week, it was met with an outraged review by Kyle Smith in the New York Post, who slammed the film as “a hateful and boring attack on Catholics,” because the film presents what is, by most accounts, a realistic depiction of the cruelties inflicted on girls in the convent system. Smith’s review would be a forgettable, ideologically driven footnote but for one thing — it provoked a public reply from the real Philomena Lee. Go read her letter, published in Deadline, in which she tells Smith, “Forgive me for saying so, Kyle, but you are incorrect.” It’s a pretty remarkable document, a defense of a dramatization by the subject of that drama, who like the fictionalized version played by Dench, seems to have very little use for angry denunciations:
This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.
Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack.
And it certainly is that. In confronting the system that caused so much harm, and still seeing the humanity of those behind it, Philomena is a far more honestly Christian movie than a lot of the fare that’s being peddled as “Christian entertainment.”