The biggest thunderclap of cheers and applause heard in ages at the Venice Film Festival came halfway through the press screening of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, when Steve Coogan, as journalist Martin Sixsmith, looks at Judi Dench, as Philomena Lee, and mutters, “F—ing Catholics.” Italy is both a Catholic country and a robustly anticlerical one, but the whoops from the audience weren’t a reflex action to an ecclesiastical obscenity. They expressed a passionate connection to the film’s story, ”inspired by true events,” of a woman looking for the son that the Church stole from her a half-century before.
The thieves were Northern Irish nuns who ran a slave-labor home for unwed pregnant girls — similar to the homes for “fallen girls” documented in The Magdalene Sisters, which won the Golden Lion here in 2002. In Philomena, the facility is called Roscrea; and two orders of nuns, The Sisters of Mercy and The Little Sisters of the Poor, are conflated, with wicked wit, into The Sisters of Little Mercy. But the particulars are sadly accurate. When the girls, indentured to the convent for four years, gave birth (with little or no medical help), they were allowed to see their babies only an hour a day. Wealthy couples, often from the U.S., could adopt the children for $1,000 and take them away without the young mothers being allowed to even say goodbye forever. Decades later, when these women returned asking for aid in locating their children, they were told all the documentation had been lost in a fire.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of The Magdalene Sisters)
Do let your blood boil at this sorry chapter in recent Church history, exceeded in evil and venality only by the abuse of untold numbers of boys by Catholic priests. And then understand that Philomena, for all the righteous anger it displays and incites, is at heart a feel-good movie. It details the crusade of a cheerful woman, Philomena, who 50 years after her Roscrea ordeal, hopes to find her son Anthony. “I’d like to know if he thought of me,” she tells Sixsmith. “I’ve thought of him every day.”
Philomena is almost a comedy. Frears, in fine form at 72, has proved himself a modest master at juggling the serious and the silly in such actors’ showcases as The Queen and Tamara Drewe; and the script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, from Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, brims with bright dialogue. With an itinerary ranging from London to Birr, Ireland, to various parts of the U.S., Philomena is also a kind of road movie, in which two people, separated by class and temperament, learn to respect and embrace each other’s strengths and quirks. In that sense, this is a cousin to Michael Winterbottom’s TV series and feature film The Trip, in which Coogan and Rob Brydon engage in dueling banter on a restaurant jaunt through the English Midlands.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of The Trip)
Sixsmith, a BBC journalist who was cashiered from the Labour Government just before meeting Philomena, is a graduate of Oxford (and Harvard and the Sorbonne) and an expert purveyor of deflating mots on any subject, including his own atheism: “I don’t believe in God and I think He can tell.” Martin is tipped to Philomena’s quest by her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin), a waitress, and, desperate for work, pitches the idea to a broadsheet editor who sees its potential as a human-interest story. Martin’s problem: he has no human interest. He’d rather be writing a book on Russian history than spending time with the chatty, chummy Philomena, whose taste in literature runs to romance novels, whose plots she is happy to exhaustively relate to the exasperated Martin, and, when they travel to Washington, D.C., on her lost son’s trail, is tempted to watch Big Momma’s House on the hotel VOD rather than visit the Lincoln Memorial.
Getting full comic effect from its class-comedy abrasions, Philomena rises to poignancy and profundity as Dench reveals her control of a character stained by the loss of her child and troubled by her suspicion, when she learns the name his American family gave him, that “He wasn’t my Anthony. He was somebody else’s Michael.” Yet despite Martin’s sage observation that “It’s the Catholic Church that should be going to confession, not you,” Philomena has never lost her faith. As she lights a candle at church, a priest asks if it’s for someone special and with her eyes gently tearing, she whispers, “Yes.”
Coogan, the comic who has played the shallow chat-host Alan Partridge on TV for nearly 20 years, brings an agreeable, sometimes awkward gravity to Martin. Sophie Kennedy Clark rings all notes of helplessness and holy fury as the young Philomena. But this is Dench’s triumph. At 78, she has a golden career behind her, often as queens (Mrs Brown, Shakespeare in Love) and other frosty matriarchs (James Bond’s M). So the warmth under pressure she radiates here is nearly a surprise. As Philomena discovers more about her child, Dench subtly conveys all the hopes and apprehensions the character has harbored for 50 years.
Philomena Lee proved her mettle by never relinquishing her love and her mission. Judi Dench gives a performance of grace, nuance and cinematic heroism. You might say it’s f—ing brilliant.