Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. United Kingdom/USA/France, 2013. The Weinstein Company, Yucaipa Films, Pathe, BBC Films, British Film Institute, Canal+, Cine+, Baby Cow Productions, Magnolia Mae Films, Baby Cow Films. Screenplay by Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Produced by Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, Gabrielle Tana. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Production Design by Alan MacDonald. Costume Design by Consolata Boyle. Film Editing by Valerio Bonelli. Academy Awards 2013. Golden Globe Awards 2013. Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
Judi Dench scores another home run as Philomena Lee, the truth-life tragedy documented by Martin Sixsmith in a book published in 2009. Lee was a pregnant teen in the early fifties who was placed in a Magdalene laundry (which was pretty much Ireland’s contribution to the history of slavery) and forced to give up her child for adoption. Fifty years later, the lost child’s birthday inspires her to reveal this secret woe to her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) and then step up the efforts she’d made throughout the years to find the boy and discover what became of him. When she gets in the way of Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the adaptation), recently disgraced in a political scandal and in need of a job, the search takes on a new life with him accompanying her to Ireland and, later, America as part of an assignment to do a human interest piece for a newspaper. Coogan is reluctant to get attached to the task at hand, resentful at how far he has fallen in his career, but eventually this delightful woman, who is bubbly and friendly but never simple, works his way into his heart and her journey becomes a personal cause. After the entire audience has fallen madly in love with her, because when did Dench ever not win us over completely, her experiences become the audience’s as well, and the harrowing voyage into her past and, eventually, her soul, is the makings of one of the finest tearjerkers in recent years. Stephen Frears maintains his habit of intelligently emotional filmmaking, perfectly in tune with what parts of the story are worth focusing on (particularly the nonverbal revelations of his lead characters) and excising the parts that are unnecessary (such as the numbing details of tracking down information). The film encompasses the horrors of an intolerant religious system that punishes young women (and interestingly enough, never young men) for errors in judgment and not principle, though Philomena herself has a refreshing refusal to be sorry in either case: she tows the line when it comes to her Catholic beliefs, but she regrets neither the sex with the boy she so enjoyed encountering nor having a baby she has loved and had an imaginary relationship with for decades. This judgment of the evils of Catholic history in Ireland is balanced with moments of humour and tenderness that never let it get bogged down in misery; then it ends with a commitment to grace and healing that is overwhelmingly powerful. The superb supporting cast includes the wonderful Michelle Fairley as Coogan’s editor and a nearly unrecognizable Barbara Jefford giving the film its final, awe-inspiring punch.