Film Review – Philomena
Philomena is a simple story about a mother trying to figure out what happened to the son she was forced to give up, and the disgraced reporter helping her. Martin (Steve Coogan) is a former reporter and government official who was forced from his job over an e-mail that he didn’t send. He’s down on his luck and restless. Philomena (Judi Dench) is an elderly Irish woman who has just admitted to her grown daughter that when she was a teenager she had a child that the Catholic Church forced her to give up. Her daughter, hearing that Martin used to be a reporter, tries to get him interested in making the search into a story and helping Philomena find her lost son.
At first, Martin is reluctant to work on a human interest story, but he has nothing better to do. Through conversations and flashbacks, we learn about how Philomena became pregnant and stayed in an abbey for the birth, then having to stay for years to pay off her debt and the “sin” she committed. She also had to give up the rights to her child, which was given up for adoption without her knowing. The story appeals to Martin as one that explores some dark events, and Philomena agrees to go along for the story as a way to finance the journey.
While looking for information about her son, there is a mini fight over religious beliefs between Philomena and Martin. While she’s sad about what happened, she is never less than a genuinely cheerful person, and still has her religious beliefs. Her outlook is to focus on the nuns that were nice. Martin is more cynical about the events, and sees what the nuns did as despicable. He is also more worldly and educated than she is, which provides some interesting back-and-forth. Unfortunately, the film never really gives these observations the necessary time to be explored or developed beyond some pretty predictable observations. This shallowness becomes a major stumbling block for the movie, in that it doesn’t explore anything with any real passion. With Philomena’s backstory, we see the horrors of what women went through, and there was anger that built in me as a viewer. Yet it never feels like the weight of how truly awful these events were is measured, nor does it become clear what we should take from the story.
Coogan and Dench create a nice rapport between their characters, who never become close, but play off each other’s strengths. His professionalism and her true human desire to find her son help keep the search going. Yet this is all they really have, and while it works to keep the plot moving, it never deepens to more then that. The same is true of the investigation itself. We see, with a good deal of realism, what happened to the son, and yet we never really get to anything that gives him shape or meaning. Really what we have going for us is watching these two actors go through this journey. Dench is believable in her role as pleasant but rather ordinary older woman. The contrast between her here and in last year’s Skyfall, as a fearless leader that intimidates men half her age, continues to show her range as an actress. Coogan, too, is solid, as a man wronged at his job trying to put up with this daft old lady (Philomena’s own words) while also getting in some cynical quips.
This is the kind of movie you have a hard time loving but an equally hard time hating. The story and acting are good enough, yet it lacks any real bite to make everything come alive. Dench and Coogan are more than up to the acting challenge here. Coogan’s script and Stephen Frears‘s direction keep everything moving smoothly, and you will not be bored. But after all is said and done, it is unlikely that the film will leave any lasting impact or a desire to revisit it.