He is an ex-journalist who crossed over to a government spokesman job that has just blown up in his face. Depressed, embarrassed, the one story idea he’s been pitched is “human interest,” a story by and about “weak-minded, vulgar, ignorant people.”
She’s an old, ill-educated Irish woman who might fit his definition of “human interest.” But she’s in need of a journalist – disgraced or otherwise.
“Philomena” is a standard issue little-old-lady tour de force for Oscar winner Judi Dench, but it’s a delicious change of pace for snarky funnyman Steve Coogan. It’s a true story about one of the many horrors of Ireland’s infamous “Magdalene laundries”: asylums for “fallen women” mandated by the government, at the Catholic Church’s urging, where pregnant women had their babies and worked in convent laundries.
And women like Philomena, sent there in the 1950s, saw their babies long enough to love them – only to watch them snatched away, sold into adoption, never to be seen by their birth mothers again.
Philomena (Dench) doesn’t so much want her story told. She’s over the outrage and still respectful enough of the Mother Church to accept the blizzard of lies about records “lost in a fire,” etc., as the nuns tells her. She wants ex-BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) to find her little boy for her.
Coogan (“Tropic Thunder,” “Night at the Museum”) dials down his snarl just a hair as Sixsmith, a man who doesn’t share Philomena’s faith or patience. “I don’t believe in God,” Sixsmith quips, “and I think he can tell.”
The two have comical theological debates, as Philomena tries to get across something about forgiveness and cynical Sixsmith tries to make her tap into her justifiable outrage, her misuse at the hands of nuns he calls “The Sisters of Little Mercy.”
But the old woman’s simple faith – in him – pushes Sixsmith. And as he follows the 50-year-old trail to America, dragging her along with him, he senses not just a story but a sensation.
Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), working from a script co-written by Coogan, never lets the story lapse into sentiment. The third-act surprises are human-scaled “shocks,” nothing deeply out of the ordinary, but affecting nevertheless.
Dench lets her accent lapse from time to time. But it’s mainly a performance of spunk and sparkle, bringing to life a twinkly, grandmotherly working-class woman who isn’t above enjoying a drink or a naughty word.
Most credit goes to Coogan for the success of this odd coupling. He doesn’t have to roll his eyes for us to sense Sixsmith’s eyes rolling as he endures Philomena’s lengthy summaries of lowbrow romance novels she thinks he should read or her scoldings at his simmering fury at the brick walls church folk throw up in front of them as he tries to discover the truth.
And up every blind alley, around every mildly surprising corner that this sad but hopeful investigation leads Philomena, Coogan makes sure that Sixsmith’s journey is every bit as redemptive, in its own way.