We first meet Philomena (Dame Judy Dench) on the fiftieth birthday of the son she never got to know. Born out of wedlock in 1950s Ireland, her boy was whisked away from the Magdalene Laundries where they lived, adopted by an American couple she never met.
Her story finds its way to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope), a jaded journalist who thinks human-interest stories are for “weak-minded, vulgar people.” He’d rather be writing about Russian history but Philomena’s story is too good to be ignored.
This odd couple approaches the story from opposite sides. Philomena motives are simple and human. “I’d like to know if Anthony Lee ever thought of me,” she says. “I thought of him everyday.”
Martin, however, is angry. He’s a lapsed Catholic who thinks the church’s actions were unconscionable. He’s also looking to uncover the sensational aspects of the story.
“It was a beach birth and they wouldn’t give her drugs for her pain,” says Philomena’s daughter.
“Excellent,” he says, before catching himself. “For the story.”
The journey leads them to Washington, DC and the truth about the son she never knew.
Based on the book “The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee” by the real-life Sixsmith, the story isn’t really about the Church or the issues surrounding the Magdalene Laundries.
“I don’t want to cause any fuss or blame the church in any way,” says Philomena. “I just want to know he is all right.”
Instead it’s a relationship film. Or make that relationships film. It’s about the connection that could have been between mother and son and the mismatched pairing of the kindhearted Irish nurse and the hard-shelled journalist.
It carefully treads a line between touching and humourous, building a story of heartache and loss without ever being maudlin. Dench conveys Philomena’s obvious pain through subtle looks and faraway looks, while Martin’s sarcasm is never far beneath the surface but they also share many funny moments.
Her long winded plot recitations of her romance novels feel endless, almost as bad as when someone starts a conversation with, “I had the weirdest dream last night,” but her enthusiastic retellings of them help endear Philomena to Martin and the audience. It’s within these moments that the movie’s real heart reveals itself.
“Philomena” transcends its roots as a class study, becoming instead a poignant and funny story of forgiveness and the true nature of love.