If there is one thing that the British excel at, it is the dramatization of real events. They manage to avoid the hero worship that is characteristic of American biopics. Stephen Frears’s Philomena is no exception.
Philomena tells the tale of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was confined to a convent as a young woman after becoming pregnant. At the age of three, her son is sent to live with a wealthy family. Taught to be ashamed of her pregnancy, and forced to work by the nuns as penance for her crime, it takes almost fifty years for her to confess the existence of her son to her family. Her daughter, believing her mother deserves justice for the wrongs done her, enlists journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to help track the son down.
Dench and Coogan are the perfect counterpoints to one another. Coogan’s Martin is full of anger for the injustices that have been perpetrated upon Philomena and thousands like her, and Dench’s Philomena is endlessly forgiving. Philomena is at its best when it is just the two of them discussing their lives and beliefs. Dench is particularly wonderful, radiating kindness and taking each new revelation along her journey with an unerring acceptance. When the film periodically falters, it is Dench’s performance that pulls it back on track. She is the guiding light that keeps it from becoming an endless tirade against the church by reminding us of the good that can come out of organized religion, something that is all too rare in today’s society.
While the initial scenes at the Abbey are a bit ridiculous, with the portrayal of the nuns resembling something out of a B horror film, the performances of the two leads manage to keep the film on an even keel. The most amazing thing is that it doesn’t judge. While the wrongs of the past are not celebrated, neither the Philomena nor the nuns are crucified for their past actions. The films final message is one of unfailing forgiveness for past wrongs, which is a nice change from the general brimstone and fire approach.