Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 19, 2013
Judi Dench’s face is a global treasure, and should be carved Rushmore-like on the Hollywood Hills. The wrinkles, furrows and lines, the range of nuance around the mouth and eyes, the voice, everything – like a great conductor – conveys meaning.
Her palette of expression graces the movie “Philomena,” based on the true-life story of Philomena Lee, who in 1952 as an 18-year-old unwed mother was sent to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland, and forced to sign away her baby’s future. When the boy was three she watched helplessly as a wealthy couple she never met took him away. She couldn’t even say goodbye.
Fifty years later, when the movie takes place, Philomena decides to track down her son, whom she has never heard from or about, and hires a former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith (played by British comedian Steve Coogan), to help find him.
The movie, directed by Stephen Frears, is based on Mr. Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” As played by Ms. Dench, Philomena is a sweet, warm-hearted woman with a still-vibrant faith in the church. The movie turns on her search, which takes her and Mr. Sixsmith to America and to some surprising revelations about her son’s life. But what makes the movie work is the subtle chemistry – the bantering humor and sharp differences – between Ms. Dench and Mr. Coogan, who is something of a revelation.
The comedian, well-known in England for his long-running television show “Alan Partridge” (a British Stephen Colbert) turns in a very fine performance as the cynical and acerbic journalist, not afraid to march into the nun’s quarters at Roscrea Abbey and angrily confront one of the sisters, while Philomena hangs back.
They are an odd couple in other respects too. He is sophisticated, jaundiced and self-righteous with a frequent scowl that threatens to break into a pout. She is a simple, likable and maternal figure with a loving demeanor and a knack for doing the right thing.
Mr. Coogan optioned Mr. Sixsmith’s book and then co-wrote the screenplay. As with a lot of “based-on-a-true-story” movies, much of the movie is fictional. Ms. Lee never came to America, and the depiction of the abbey is decidedly harsh, so much so that a New York Post reviewer trashed the movie as “another hateful attack on Catholics.” In response the real-life Philomena Lee, now 80, wrote a moving letter proclaiming her continuing faith in the church.
She even forgave the moviemakers their transgressions. “They really make me look like a silly billy, don’t you think?” she told a reporter. But she understood the need to inject some fictional levity into the film, because “otherwise, it is a very sad story.”
Indeed it is, and a very fine one.