Stephen Frears’ drama about a woman touching down on her roots and seeking some sense of purpose is a sweet and simple dramedy that really reaches emotional lengths beyond its quaint story. Based on a true event, Steve Coogan is fantastic as a jaded and somewhat disgraced political journalist Martin Sixsmith who decides to leave his world in exchange for writing about Russian history. He’s approached by Jane, a waitress, at a party who offers him a chance to help her mother Philomena search for her long lost son. At first he’s put off by the idea of the search but soon sees it as his opportunity for a best seller.
What basically begins as a search for a good human interest tale becomes an utterly heartbreaking look in to the fractured and tortured youth of Philomena, who was victimized by her religious institution. Philomena is played brilliantly by Judi Dench who portrays the woman as simple but charming, in her ways. She’s so sheltered she can’t really catch on to the smaller elements of the environment around her, and she prone to bouts of enthusiastically talking without any sense of time. As is indicated in one humorous moment where she recalls an entire book for Coogan’s character Martin during a ride through an airport terminal on a cart.
Most of “Philomena” is based around the woman’s recollections of living in an Abbey with “shamed” girls, and how the house not only exploited the young women, but their children in the process. The flashbacks are absolutely gut wrenching, especially considering Dench is so perfectly able to convey the heart ache with immense zeal that helps flesh out a woman who’s tended to a broken heart for decades. When she seeks out her long lost son, adopted in to American company, she finds some truly interesting facts about his life that bring her a sense of heartache, satisfaction, and the ability to finally resolve her life long series of regrets.
Coogan is especially excellent as the ineffective reporter Sixsmith whose journey with Philomena helps him find a greater cause within his search for the perfect human interest tale, allowing him to help just one of many young women that lost their families. Coogan and Dench have charming chemistry, skillfully bouncing dialogue off of one another while Dench plays toward Coogan’s comedic ability to react in the most subtle but hilarious manner. Director Frears handles the story with enough dramatic weight and light comic fare to make “Philomena” a sweet and very compelling human tale about a woman finally resolving the biggest source of sadness of her life, and hopefully figuring out how to achieve happiness in her remaining years.