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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 12:01 am

Philomena engrossing

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith in Philomena.
PHOTO COURTESY THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

When Philomena Lee became pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1951, she had very few options. Out of shame, her parents sent her to a convent in Roscrea where she worked as an indentured laundry lady, eventually gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Michael who she was only allowed to see an hour a day and then lost him through adoption when he was 3 years old. Lee’s troubles were compounded some 50 years later when she attempted to find out what became of her son, only to find her efforts stymied by Ireland’s Catholic Church, which refused to provide any information to her or the many other mothers who were attempting to track down the children they were forced to give up.

Stephen Frears’ Philomena tells Lee’s tale but not in the way you might expect. Yes, it is tragic and drives home the pain and regret its character is feeling, but the director presents her story with a touch akin to a feather where others would use a sledgehammer. The film also contains moments of great humor, has twists and turns befitting a good mystery and provides a sense of redemption for both its characters that’s sincere. Neither is cheaply won.

The film begins in 2004 when a maelstrom of bad press is swirling about Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), an advisor for Tony Blair’s administration who’s forced to resign under embarrassing circumstances. Searching for a project to keep himself occupied and alleviate his depression, he reluctantly meets Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a senior citizen he’s caught wind of who is trying to track down her lost son. Sixsmith is less than thrilled about this as he looks at “human interest” stories such as this with disdain. Yet, there’s something about Lee that moves him and he agrees to accompany her to Roscrea where their inquiries regarding the location of her son are met with polite rebukes.

This only spurs Sixsmith to dig deeper and what he uncovers takes him and Lee to the United States where what they find out about her son proves that the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” still holds true in this day and age. One of the most pleasant surprises in the film is the engrossing mystery it contains. Though we are privy to what has become of Michael early on, the story of how he got there is fascinating and unpredictable, providing one surprise after another. Equally unexpected is the movie’s humor. There is a distinct difference in class between Lee and Sixsmith which proves to generate many amusing moments. The sheltered woman’s tastes and experiences come in conflict with Sixsmith’s somewhat snobbish view and worldliness. There are no jokes here, simply humor mined from the characters themselves, making it all the more genuine.

In a year of strong female performances, Dench delivers one of the best. Her assignment is a tricky one. In lesser hands, Lee would have been rendered as a dotty old woman on a fool’s errand. However, the actress brings a dignity to this woman, never playing her with a note of condescension or pity. Her character’s intentions were simple and true and Dench approaches her in the same way, giving us a woman who was misused by a system she put her faith in, yet manages to maintain her dignity despite the abuse she suffers. Playing against type, Coogan holds his own, managing to bring a sense of purpose to a character whose function is to simply move the plot along. In some ways, the actor’s best move is to simply stay out of Dench’s way and provide grace notes when necessary.

One of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of 2013, Philomena succeeds thanks to the sense of restraint Frears, Dench and Coogan bring to the film. While watching it, try to imagine what Hollywood’s approach to this material would be … then give thanks that this story landed in the hands of those who know that less is often more when telling stories that deal with matters of the heart.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.
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