Opens Wed., Nov. 27 at Seven Gables, SIFF, and others. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes.
A heartrending true story won’t get you everywhere in movies, but it can really help. And Philomena, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist and onetime UK government spokesman Martin Sixsmith, has a devastating tale to tell. The film begins with Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, late of The Trip), a brittle Oxbridge type, newly out of a job and lowering himself to write a human-interest story. That’s how he meets Philomena (Judi Dench), an Irish lady with the kinds of questions that perhaps only a reporter could answer. As a teenager in the 1950s, Philomena got pregnant, was sent to a Catholic convent to hide her sin, and gave birth there. She remained at the convent as unpaid labor, and her little boy was taken at age 3, never to be seen or heard from again.
She’d like to know what happened. And so—despite his initial frostiness—would Sixsmith, whose outrage increases the more he learns. Their discoveries are a matter of record now, but we’ll hold off on the revelations . . . except to say that there are some doozies. The temptation to make this saga an odd-couple pairing has not been entirely resisted; this leads to the film’s soggiest moments, including the caricaturing of Philomena’s naiveté—which of course is shown to be superior to Sixsmith’s worldliness, as you knew it would be. That stuff makes Philomena seem at times like an awards-season offering made under the savvy hand of producer and Oscar-monger Harvey Weinstein. Which, partly, it is.
Maybe it’s Coogan’s acerbic personality (he scripted, with Jeff Pope), or director Stephen Frears’ unpretentious take on the material, but Philomena generally succeeds in distinguishing itself from the average weepie. The calm roll-out is effective; Coogan’s performance is shrewd; and anytime the camera gets near the convent, the Irish chill is almost palpable. Three supporting performances supply an index of the lingering damage: Sophie Kennedy Clark is touching as the young Philomena; British stage legend Barbara Jefford is monstrous as the severest nun; and Mare Winningham—in maybe five minutes of screen time—absolutely crushes it as an American woman with connections to the case. They keep the movie honest, as it should be.