There’s a particularly smug and tut-tutting billboard currently making the rounds which reads, “To Our Atheist Friends: Thank God You’re Wrong.”
“Philomena” has a similar head-patting brand of dismissive arrogance, which is doubly offensive given its theme of forgiveness against those who have done you wrong. If the movie wants to let the Catholic Church off the hook lightly for its crimes against unwed mothers in Ireland in the mid-20th century, that is its right, but why top that off with such a dismissive attitude toward non-believers?
Thankfully, Stephen Frears’ docudrama offers the one-two punch of Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, and even if the film eventually forces a singular perspective on the material, the actors’ chemistry absolves any number of narrative sins.
As a teenage girl in the 1950s, Philomena Lee (played as an adolescent by Sophie Kennedy Clark) has her head turned by a handsome young man she meets at a carnival. When she became pregnant, her embarrassed family left her at a convent, where girls were scolded for their sins, forced to undergo painful labor (as expiation for their wrongdoing) and then work in the convent laundry to pay back the cost of their keeping. (This practice was previously examined in the decidedly bleaker 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters.”)
The children who survived were sold off to American families (according to “Philomena,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” star Jane Russell was a customer), and the young women signed away their right to keep, or ever receive information about, their children.
On the 50th anniversary of her son’s birth, the elderly Philomena (Dench) breaks her silence and decides to try to track down the child she has thought about every day for the last five decades. The convent proves unhelpful, so her daughter seeks the assistance of disgraced former government mouthpiece Martin Sixsmith (Coogan); he is at first uninterested, but then realizes that this is the kind of heart-tugging human interest story to kick-start his new career as a journalist. (Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay is based on Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”)
Philomena and Martin butt up against numerous bureaucratic and personal impediments, but between his dogged tactlessness and her sweet-old-lady demeanor, they are finally able to piece together the mystery. As the depths of betrayal committed by the church become clearer, Martin grows angrier while Philomena finds within herself the capacity to forgive.
The film fares best when tracking this duo’s travels from Ireland to the United States and back again, as Martin goes from being irritated to charmed by Philomena’s inherent kindness to strangers and her love of mainstream romance novels. These extraordinary actors make an eminently watchable odd couple.
Where “Philomena” gets problematic is in its insistence that the audience see Philomena’s take on the world as “right” and Sixsmith’s insider cynicism as “wrong.” Can’t they just be different? Does the film’s pedestal for Philomena’s righteousness have to smother Sixsmith’s differing viewpoint? Is this secretly a Tyler Perry movie?
Biopics about the living can be tricky — each one has its own minefield of keeping the subject happy — and “Philomena,” at least, never soft-pedals the injustices visited upon its central character. Had the film stopped short of beatifying her, however, we might have a more satisfying drama.