Stephen Frears, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan have come together to bring us the true story of an older woman attempting to find her son after he was taken from her as a child. Coogan co-wrote the script (based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), produces and stars as Martin Sixsmith, a journalist and former political spin doctor unceremoniously fired from the Blair administration looking to regain a foothold in his life when he is approached by the daughter of Philomena Lee (Dench) hoping to use his journalistic skills to help uncover the whereabouts of her son. Sixsmith resists initially, but comes around soon enough and takes on the story.
Philomena is definitely a formula film, from its “Inspired by true events” title card and marching biographical end cards prior to the credits, to the odd couple nature of its two central characters. Coogan’s Sixsmith is a brash, cynical and sarcastic atheist city boy, and is constantly frustrated and thrown off by Philomena’s small town Irish Catholic traditionalism. I mean, just look at that poster. It says it all. This film easily could have been subsumed by formula, as Philomena would find a way to unlock Sixsmith’s black heart, maybe resulting in him casting off his smarmy life to join the peace corps or something. And it all would have been directed by Garry Marshall. But we are lucky people, because this alternate universe Philomena does not exist. Coogan makes sure of that (Dench does as well). As the plot unfolds and Martin and Philomena uncover more about her “missing” son that puts them on a trip to America, the film hits its story beats but manages to keep your attention due to the strength of its characterization. Yes, Martin is a curmudgeon who (at least initially) takes every opportunity to make snide comments (especially when a group of Catholic nuns are at the heart of the misdeeds), but he has his limits, and those limits feel organic and earned.
And it’s tough not to have those limits when you’re looking at Judi Dench, specifically what Judi Dench is doing here. Philomena has a quiet, reserved calm that belies her true feelings, gathering up all of that history, the injustice, the oppression mixed with the loss and guilt associated with her past and the forced adoption. Despite all of this, Philomena still believes in the church and God, which in turn complicates her feelings further. The character of Philomena is the main reason the film swerves away from the formula just enough to entice the viewer further into the story. Her influence rubs off on Martin as they spend more time together, but he never entirely gives up on his own predilections. Dench and Coogan have a fantastic chemistry and inhabit their roles with ease.
The film is held back by the few times it is forced to adhere to its formula in ways that feel forced. A few of the climactic scenes nearly upset the balance, where it feels like Philomena and Martin are making choices because that’s how you get to where you need the film to be by its credits. Plot beats as pure plot beats are always upsetting, and it’s no different here. Additionally, the script is entirely uninterested with any of the secondary characters. Philomena’s daughter is a key part of the development of the story until she entirely disappears during the second act and is never seen again. Martin’s editor (played by Michelle Fairley, fresh from the fields of Westeros) inhabits a relatively clichéd position until she similarly disappears, which is a bit troubling especially as Martin makes more public decisions that couldn’t possibly go without at least some kind of comment from his boss. Everything exists to serve one purpose: the relationship between Martin and Philomena.
It’s the little touches that make Philomena work. It’s the way Frears cuts in these fabricated home movies (beginning in 16 mm 4:3, but adapting as her son gets older and technology improves) as we learn more about little Anthony, letting us watch him grow up before their eyes. It’s how well the flashback scenes of Philomena as a teenager work to establish the Philomena character, and how well Dench picks up on the mannerisms of her younger counterpart (or, I guess, visa versa). The whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, and Frears, Coogan and Dench do yeoman’s work to cover up the weaknesses at play. These all add up to a thoroughly enjoyable film experience, although an imperfect one.