Philomena Lee had a child out of wedlock. This was in Ireland in 1951 so her father sent her to Sean Ross Abbey where the nuns gave her food and shelter and worked her to the bone. For three years they also raised her child (allowing Philomena to see her son only one hour a day.) Then they sold the boy for adoption to some rich Americans. Philomena never saw her son again.
Philomena’s story is not unusual. Similar ones were played out hundreds of times all over Ireland. But she told her story to journalist Martin Sixsmith who made a book of it. Steve Coogan wrote a screenplay based on the book and director Stephen Frears turned it into a movie.
The book focuses solely on Philomena’s attempt to find her lost son. The film makes characters of Philomena and Sixsmith. After 50 years of keeping her son a secret to everyone she knows, including her husband and daughter, she finally overcomes the great well of guilt and decides to try to find out what happened to him.
Sixsmith was a journalist for the BBC but had spent the last several years working as Prime Minister David Blair’s Director of Communications. After an e-mail scandal, he was subsequently fired from the government position and was floundering about when approached with Philomena’s story.
At first he isn’t the least bit interested, feeling that her story is beneath him. But he quickly comes around (though the film doesn’t tell us exactly why) and he begins to investigate. They speak to the nuns at the Abbey but are politely rebuffed with story of all documents being burned in a fire and that no one there is old enough to remember. After speaking with some local townsfolk, they learn that most of the children from the abbey were sent to America.
The two fly to New York and slowly discover what happened to her son and uncover the fact that children were being sold into adoption by the Catholic Church without their mother’s consent. I won’t give any more of the plot away except to say that the story is less important than the building relationship between the two leads.
The film works as a romantic comedy (albeit one in which the two main characters become great friends, not lovers.) In the beginning the two seem completely incompatible and are often seen chaffing against one another. Yet through a series of adventures and travels, they begin to see their true selves and learn to respect and love each other.
A great deal of comedy comes from the juxtaposition of the wealthy, influential, well-educated Sixsmith and the poor, working-class, religious Philomena. Coogan who both wrote and stars in it as Sixsmith does a marvelous job. At first, he seems to be simply humoring Philomena to get the story. A story he has no real interest in except that he needs a job, and presumably the money. With subtle facial queues, we see how irritating he finds her simple, menial life. Judi Dench, as Philomena, is as exquisite as ever. She plays the part with grace and compassion.
It is a funny film without ever feeling jokey or hilarious even. It is a drama but never self indulgent. It is sad without ever becoming coy or melodramatic. It is a simple film told extremely well. We need more of these kinds of movies.
The Blu-ray looks quite wonderful. The modern-day images are sharp, clear, and consistently beautiful. Flashback scenes that show Philomena at the Abbey are grittier and a bit intentionally washed out, but it never betrays its clarity. The audio likewise is very good. It is a talkative drama without any sort of action nor blaring music, but the dialogue is always crisp and clear, and the score and musical cues likewise sound good.
There are a handful of decent extras. The best is an audio commentary from Steve Coogan and co-screenwriter Jeff Pope that is interesting and often quite funny. It fills in the difference between the book and film, and reveals various details about the shoot. Also interesting is a Q&A with Coogan from December 2013. He is candid and thoroughly engaging. There is a nine-minute interview with Dench, who discusses her career, and a very short interview with the real Philomena Lee at the AFI Film Festival.