At 78, Judi Dench has done and won it all. In nearly 60 years on the stage, in films and on television, she has earned one Oscar, seven Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tony) and 11 BAFTAs (the first in 1966, for Most Promising Newcomer). In 1988, Queen Elizabeth II named her a dame. That was seven years before Dench, at the age of 60, became a significant film personality after she was cast as M, 007’s boss, in her first of seven James Bond films. Since then she has played monarchs (Victoria in Mrs. Brown, Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love) and a host of other imperious ladies.
Almost always, she has transmitted an aura of frost and starch. Just 5 ft. 1 in., she can gaze down at the world in majestic disapproval, the corners of her mouth curled, her eyes a laser. Even in sympathetic roles, such as the widow in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Jean Hardcastle in the decadelong BBC series As Time Goes By, Dench has been a figure of efficiency and common sense. Warmth has seemed out of her range.
Yet warmth under pressure is Dench’s gift to her character in Stephen Frears’ funny, angry Philomena. In a film inspired by true events, she plays Philomena Lee, a woman looking for the son whom the Catholic 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” dramatized in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters. In Philomena, the facility is called Roscrea, and the particulars are sadly accurate. After the girls, who were 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’ even being allowed to say goodbye. Decades later, when the women returned asking for aid in locating their children, they were told that the documentation had been lost in a fire.
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 outrage it displays and incites, is at heart a feel-good movie. It details the crusade of a cheerful woman who, 50 years after the ordeal at Roscrea, hopes to find her son Anthony. “I’d like to know if he thought of me,” she tells Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). “I’ve thought of him every day.”
Martin, a BBC journalist who was cashiered from Tony Blair’s 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. Desperate for work, he 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, the plots of which she is happy to relate in numbing detail to the exasperated Martin. When they travel to Washington on her lost son’s trail, the old dear is tempted to watch Big Momma’s House at her hotel via video on demand rather than visit the Lincoln Memorial.
So Philomena is almost a comedy. The script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, from Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, brims with bright dialogue. Frears proved himself a minor master at juggling the serious and the silly in such actors’ showcases as The Queen and Tamara Drewe; in fine form at 72, he mines the character quirks of Philomena and Martin as well as her prevailing heartache. With an itinerary that takes them from London to Birr, Ireland, to various parts of the U.S., this 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, Philomena is a companion 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.
Getting full humorous effect from its class-comedy abrasions, Philomena rises to poignancy and profundity as Dench takes magnificent control of her character. Philomena is stained by the loss of her child and, after learning the name his American family gave him, troubled by her suspicion 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,” the lady doesn’t lose her faith. As she lights a candle at church, a priest asks if it’s for someone special. With her eyes gently tearing, she whispers, “Yes.”
Coogan, the comic who has played the shallow chat host Alan Partridge on British TV for nearly 20 years, brings an agreeable, sometimes awkward gravity to Martin. Sophie Kennedy Clark rings pitch-perfect notes of helplessness and holy fury as the young Philomena. But this is Dench’s triumph. As Philomena learns more about her child, Dench subtly conveys all the hopes and apprehensions the character has harbored for 50 years.
The real Philomena proved her mettle by relinquishing neither her love for her son nor her mission to discover his fate. Judi Dench validates and extends her acclaim by giving a performance of grace, nuance and cinematic heroism.