Based on the non-fiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, this is a story of a mystery as well as the genesis of the book in which both the title character and the author are equally important. In a case of art imitating life, Steve Coogan who plays Martin also co-wrote the screenplay for this film.
It begins with Martin who has just been unexpectedly and publicly sacked from his high-profile job at the BBC is both shocked and humiliated and at a loss as to what to do next. He is offered a job writing “human interest” pieces by an editor, Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley). Being a fairly arrogant and cynical guy who typically covers politics and world events he considers this way beneath his dignity and rudely dismisses it. However, when he is approached by a young woman (Anna Maxwell Martin) who wants to talk to him about her mother’s story - he is both bored enough and idle enough to consider it.
When he meets Philomena (Judy Dench) a slightly dotty Irish lady, who tells her story of becoming pregnant at sixteen years old and being sent to a nunnery in disgrace to have her baby and then having the baby taken away at age four by adoptive parents. Not a special story so far. But then the mystery kicks in. It seems that Philomena has never stopped thinking about the four year old Anthony. He haunts her dreams and she has visions of him as an older person. She has repeatedly revisited the abbey to try to find out about him and been stonewalled at every turn. But she is not giving up and seems determined to get past the wimples to the truth.
Martin is only marginally intrigued, but his editor sees great potential in this story and encourages him with angles to “milk” the story. So he reluctantly signs a contract and agrees to take it on. The rest of the film follows the two of them on the journey of discovery.
They form an odd alliance. He is wordly, an outspoken atheist, contemptuous of organized religion, opinionated, glib and does not suffer fools. She is unsophisticated, self-deprecating, somewhat clueless, non-confrontational and devoutly Catholic. He treads a fine line between satisfying his editor’s need for a sentimental sob story involving callous behavior by the Catholic church with a heart-wrenching finale, his personal distaste for this type of journalism, wanting to stick it to the Catholic Church, and protecting Philomena from being exploited. She is torn between exposing her own shame to the world, exposing the injustice and hypocrisy of the abbey, and finding out what happened to her son. Each of these imperatives move the action forward at different times as the driving force keeps switching between the two of them.
Will Martin cave to the pressure of journalistic sensationalism? Will Philomena find her son? Will the nuns be exposed? No spoiler here. This is a sweet film, not what we expect from a vehicle with Steve Coogan (The Trip, Alan Partridge). He turns in a sensitive and nuanced performance. One can see him trying to reign in his normally acerbic wit and sarcasm as it mostly falls flat in the irony-free zone inhabited by Philomena. And Judy Dench, as always, nails her character’s dogged determination, timidity, and idiosyncrasies with a pitch perfect performance.
Review by Belle McIntyre