Philomena, likely like the woman who gives the film its name, is slight. Where you would expect the film to go big, it instead goes small. When you expect something serious, it instead turns almost slapstick. That might make it too clever a film for some—such as New York Post critic Kyle Smith. He accuses the film of being “organized hate” against Catholics and Republicans. It’s not—a point made clear by both the real Philomena and the film itself.
The story in short is that Philomena (Judi Dench) gets pregnant, nuns give her baby away, and she spends the rest of her life regretting this moment—that is until she meets up with a reporter, Martin Sixsmith, played by the always-reliable Steve Coogan. I note Coogan over the wondrous Dench because it’s his film here. Dench gets the weepy scenes, but Coogan has to balance the emotional weight of the story. Once teamed up the two form an odd couple in a search for her now adult son that takes them literally across the globe.
The controversy, at least from the perspective of some, is that the nuns in this are not particularly painted in a favorable light. That’s missing the delicate brushstrokes of director Stephen Frears who makes it plainly clear this isn’t a faceless automaton of evil, but individuals making poor choices, while others don’t. That idea is central to the theme of the film and the eventual redemption of our heroes.
That Coogan makes his cynical journalist Martin a hero at all is a testament to his nuanced portrayal. He is a deeply flawed character, but one who’s anger we can all relate to given the early flashbacks of poor Philomena. He is the viewer’s vessel through the story. What’s surprising is not his anger, but that in many ways we identify so closely with said anger by the time the end ushers in its final revelations. The audience needs Philomena as much as Martin does.
Philomena is an uneven film in some ways. We probably don’t need so much time spent at the hotel or driving through suburban Virginia countryside, but in this case we’ll forgive the film these transgressions. It’s what Philomena would do.