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Sanctimony, duplicity, cruelty, and some laughs


In Stephen Frears’s mood-mingling, oddly effective Philomena, British comedian Steve Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC foreign correspondent and a recently sacked press aide in Tony Blair’s government. Depressed, at loose ends, with no friendly offers of real assistance, he speaks unconvincingly of writing a book of Russian history and begins jogging because his doctor says it can alleviate the blues. (Writing Russian history certainly won’t.)

At a cocktail party, he’s approached by a woman who tries to tell him of her mother’s nearly half-century-long quest to find the three-year-old son she was forced to give up for adoption. Sixsmith awkwardly brushes her off, saying it’s a “human interest story,” not his métier. But when a magazine editor tells him it has potential, and in the absence of anything else to do, he agrees to investigate Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) account.

Philomena is a genuine human interest story, all right, one adapted from the actual Sixsmith’s non-fiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a warm, gentle comedy until it turns more serious. It’s an oddball buddy story, and something of a road movie too, and, eventually, it becomes an exposé of corruption inside institutions of the Irish Roman Catholic Church. Coogan wrote the script with Jeff Pope (Coogan also produced), and they seem to have intermingled these elements to enhance the material’s appeal, and avoid turning out a docudrama without that human touch. They’ve certainly done that, and if the results have achieved mixed success, the movie still works to a substantial extent.

Early on, you can begin to expect a lightly comic approach. In Britain, Coogan’s a very popular TV and movie comedian (The Trip) whose international reach has extended to voicing a character on The Simpsons. At first, he makes Sixsmith a little comically ineffectual, almost as if he were doing a mixed impression of Hugh Grant and Rowan Atkinson (Brit TV’s Black Adder). It doesn’t seem likely this man was once a prominent international journalist. But Coogan settles into the role.

Philomena is a retired Irish nurse living in London. In flashbacks she tells a neo-Dickensian horror story about meeting a boy in small town, early 1950s Ireland, and getting herself with child. (The younger Philomena is played by Sophie Kennedy Clark.) Abandoned by her scandalized parents to a convent-run institution in Rosecrea, she’s made to give birth without an anesthetic (it’s a punishment for sinning), then made to work off her alleged debt to the nuns for four years as a drudge and laundry worker, allowed to visit her son for only an hour a day. After three years of this, the sisters give the boy to a rich American couple who pay them $1,000. These scenes reach a gothic pitch.

Yet Philomena tells her story calmly, without apparent rancor or bitterness; she’s mostly moved by a long, unrequited yearning for information about “Anthony.” The woman is a survivor, but not a cynic by any means. She’s remained one of the Catholic faithful. This humble, righteous woman must have presented something of a challenge to Dench, who, like the movie’s Sixsmith, hasn’t exactly specialized in “human interest,” or doing humble. Whether as the Bond series’ M, Queen Elizabeth I, or the sociopathic and vengeful teacher in Notes on a Scandal, Dench has usually brought a sense of authority, astringent skepticism or irony to her work. Here, she fits herself into the part of an ostensibly artless, forthright woman who’s awed by the bounteous excess of a hotel breakfast buffet and who can’t resist telling a slightly incredulous, inwardly wincing Sixsmith all the high and low points of the Harlequin Romance-style novels she adores. But Dench and the movie also find the large, stable reserves of character and judgment of a woman who can tell the sometimes priggishly impatient Sixsmith in her Irish temper that he’s “a fecking idiot.” Philomena’s tonal shifts mildly strain even Dench’s formidable resources, but she never really loses her grip on the part. The two stars play nicely off one another, obviously a crucial part of the movie’s delivery of the goods. Coogan improves as Philomena’s incongruent couple travel to Ireland, the US, and back to Ireland. Moving away from the early schtick, he invests Sixsmith with some dignity and depth.

The picture also becomes sadder and unabashedly sounds an emotional chord, but there’s no tearjerking. It’s more tough-minded than that as it reveals the dimensions of the corruption across Ireland. (The Magdalene Asylums ran clinics, schools, and primitive Victorian workhouses throughout the 20th century, unchecked by the church or the government.)

Frears’s controlled, insightful direction has a lot to do with the movie’s ability to move and to inspire anger. He’s an old hand with stories of abandoned or beleaguered outsiders (The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things). If Philomena achieves a somewhat unlikely success, Frears deserves a fair proportion of the credit.

Watch the trailer for Philomena

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