Grand Dame on Duty

The inestimable Dench makes an average tale extraordinary

Philomena (Judi Dench) seeks her lost son with skeptical journalist (Steve Coogan) in tow.

Philomena (Judi Dench) seeks her lost son with skeptical journalist (Steve Coogan) in tow.

On the job for 55 years, Judi Dench elevates everything she does, from M in the James Bond epics to the less intimidating but equally determined “little old Irish lady” who’s the title character in Philomena. Dench is not the only reason to see this unapologetic crowd-pleaser, but she is the best one.

As directed by the veteran Stephen Frears, Philomena’s “inspired by true events” narrative initially has trouble deciding what kind of film it wants to be, alternating between cheeky comedy and the more serious emotional moments inherent in the story of a woman looking for a child she was forced to give away in adoption.

Though it ends up the least involving part of the film, Philomena does come by its comedy honestly. Co-star Steve Coogan, one of Britain’s top comics, is not only Dench’s co-star, he is also one of the film’s producers (and co-writer with Jeff Pope), and his presence mandated a certain amount of mostly indifferent humor that gets the film off to an unsteady start.

But as Philomena gets deeper into its involving plot, it seems to gain confidence in the strength of its narrative and accepts the fact that telling a dramatic story is job one.

A good part of the credit goes to Dench’s performance as Philomena Lee—Phil for short, a retired nurse with quite a story to tell. It is the genius of the actress’ work that by bringing an instinctive dignity to her characterization, she creates someone who is simultaneously average and extraordinary.

It was co-writer Coogan who discovered the film’s narrative lurking behind an incendiary headline in The [Manchester] Guardian: “The Catholic Church Sold My Child.” That led him to a nonfiction book by Martin Sixsmith that told Philomena’s story in detail.

Philomena begins with Sixsmith’s predicament: Formerly a BBC foreign correspondent, he was employed as director of communications for Tony Blair’s government when something he did got him fired.

Desperate for something to do, he is approached by Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), about her mother’s story, but Sixsmith is initially dismissive. He considers human-interest stories to be journalism written about and for “weak-minded, ignorant people.” Full stop.

Obviously Sixsmith has a change of heart and agrees to investigate Philomena’s story. It is one of the film’s drawbacks, however, that this film is as much about the getting of wisdom for him as it is about the getting of information for Phil.

That’s a problem because this humanizing of a cynical, emotionally disconnected twit into someone who recognizes the wisdom in a person of the lower classes is as much of a cliché as it sounds. Philomena does get some mileage out of specifically British class references—there are jokes about Ryanair—but Sixsmith never rises above the level of dramatic construct, while Philomena becomes meaningful and real.

The reason for that, aside from Dench’s acting, is the strength of her story. Finding herself pregnant and out of wedlock as an Irish teenager in 1952, Philomena is handed over to the nuns at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roscrea.

These nuns, especially the hard-core Sister Hildegarde (played young by Kate Fleetwood and old by Barbara Jefford), really crack the whip. Philomena, wracked by guilt as she is, does daily back-breaking work in the laundry and is allowed to see her young son only one hour a day. She is coerced into letting her son be given away for adoption, something that haunts her for a full half-century until she confesses to daughter Jane what happened and starts on the journey to find him.

That story is the heart of Philomena and, fortunately, it is a truly surprising one. Philomena’s setup does feel conventional, but Dench makes the resolution worth waiting for.

Philomena (PG-13) ★★★✩✩