Judi Dench gives a touching, understated performance in a movie based on a powerful true story about an elderly Irish woman searching for her son, given up for adoption when she was young and living at a convent for unwed mothers.
I actually have read The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, cynically re-released as Philomena in the wake of the film adaptation. At the time this false advertisement pissed me off since, despite the title and the movie tie-in cover, Philomena barely appears in what is really the story of her son, Michael Hess, who was adopted by an American couple and grew up in the USA. While the movie is closely based on the book, it flips things around and instead focuses on Philomena and journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the script), as their search for Philomena’s son takes them from a convent in Roscrea, Ireland across the pond to the United States.
When I think of Dame Judi Dench, my mind usually goes to her stately roles such as James Bond’s regal boss M or Queen Victoria, so it was interesting to see her play a decidedly average person, a woman of modest tastes and fashions who adores romance novels, salad-bar croutons and Martin Lawrence comedies. The movie is partly an odd-couple adventure, mining humour from the unlikely team-up between Philomena and Coogan’s Martin, a snobby Oxford-educated journalist who’d rather be writing a book on Russian history but is reduced to writing a human interest story instead after losing his cushy spot as a government adviser. Initially he looks down on her common tastes, and his ironic, condescending manner clashes with Philomena’s sincere, big-hearted and literal nature.
Appearances however are deceptive, and the movie slowly reveals Philomena’s reserve of fortitude, her immense sense of empathy, her steadfast refusal to play the victim, and even a healthy matter-of-fact attitude to sex and sexuality. While it’s scathing towards the Catholic Church and the injustices suffered by Philomena and other unwed girls at the hands of nuns (who pocketed a nice sum of money from the American families looking for Irish children to adopt), it also portrays Philomena’s Christian faith and its values as the bedrock of her inner strength that eventually earns profound respect from Martin.
Judi Dench’s quiet, controlled performance here could well be my favourite of hers, saying so much while saying nothing out loud in the many arresting, lingering shots of her expressive face. Along with the script and sensitive direction by Stephen Frears, it goes a long way in steering the movie away from being an overly sentimental tearjerker and lending it emotional authenticity.
I’ve noticed that films based on true stories sometimes have a way of confounding your expectations created by consuming so many purely scripted dramas, and Philomena is definitely one of those films. Despite fully knowing the story of her son from the book, I was still at times taken aback by the way the movie unfolded. It’s really best to watch it with as little background knowledge as possible.