Susan Granger’s review of “Philomena” (The Weinstein Company)
Inspired by true events, this is the intense, chilling story of a guilt-riddled Irishwoman searching for the son that the Church stole from her a half-century before.
In Northern Ireland in 1952, when innocent, young Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was seduced at a carnival, her parents dispatched her to punitive nuns who incarcerated unwed pregnant girls in Roscrea, a slave-labor workhouse, similar to the laundry documented in “The Magdalene Sisters.” Aptly named, The Sisters of Little Mercy insisted that the “fallen girls” give birth with little or no medical assistance, claiming “Pain is their penance.” Afterwards, they were only allowed to see their tykes an hour a day. For a $1,000 donation, Catholic couples from the United States adopted the children – without their mothers’ knowledge or permission. Later, when mothers begged for information about their offspring, they were told all documentation had been lost in a fire.
Now an elderly widow, retired in Birr, Ireland, devoutly religious Philomena (Judi Dench) is determined to find her long-lost son Anthony. “I’d like to know if he thought of me,” she tells former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). “I’ve thought of him every day.”
Intrigued by the heartwarming potential of this human-interest story and bankrolled by a daily newspaper, cynical Sixsmith traces Anthony’s adoption to America and escorts congenial, relentlessly curious Philomena on a trip to Washington, D.C., a journey that proves to be revelation for both.
Adroitly balancing gentle, comedic savvy with a harrowing, horrifyingly convincing act of injustice, director Stephen Fears (“The Queen”) is blessed with a taut, witty, unsettling script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, based on Sixmith’s “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”
Judi Dench’s riveting, finely tuned performance is impeccably crisp, filled with feisty strength and beauty. She plays Philomena magnificently, leaving the audience in tears, while Steve Coogan personifies sharp, supercilious exasperation.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Philomena” is a poignant 9, a touching testament to the integrity of the human spirit, capturing Philomena’s eloquent faith in the essential goodness of people.