Over sixty years ago, a young Irish woman named Philomena Lee became pregnant. Unmarried at the time, her father both disowned her and sent her off to a convent that housed "fallen women." At this convent, babies were essentially harvested and sold off to adoptive families, often American ones, with all ties between birth mother and child severed, the records sealed or destroyed. In Lee's case, fifty years after the fact she was still denied the right to know what had become of the son she had borne. Furthermore, when that son became an adult and traveled to the convent for answers himself, he was told that he had been abandoned by his birth mother. Lee enlisted journalist Martin Sixsmith to help find answers and eventually their shared journey became a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.
Before meeting Sexsmith, Lee was a nurse for thirty years and had long since left the Catholic Church behind, even though this film adaptation from director Stephen Frears -- with Judi Dench as Lee and Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, and a script by Coogan and Jeff Pope -- delivers a problematic fictional version of Lee, depicted here as not only devoutly Catholic and superhumanly forgiving but also, well, not that bright. In fact, the on-screen Philomena Lee is so childlike and unsophisticated that in a recent Irish Post interview, her real life counterpart felt compelled to clarify the situation: "I am definitely not a dumb cluck."
Think about that for a minute. The brilliantly funny Coogan, so at ease with sophisticated, smart comedy, has co-authored a dramatic script that diminishes the complexity of its subject for the black-vs-white sake of narrative ease, an atheistic, jaded journalist on one hand and a simple, Church-fearing mother on the other. Weirder still, the film demands the audience accept the falsehood that righteous, justified anger over injustice and institutional wrongdoing and the difficult, complicated, determination to forgive the unforgivable cannot co-exist in the same person; they are apparently such diametrically opposed perspectives that they can only be presented as a no-brains ethical battle between two characters, one of whom comes off like a female Forrest Gump. Thanks, movie, for making sure I don't hurt my brain with too many thinks.
In spite of all this, Philomena pulls off a wizard-like trick: it's both emotionally affecting and heartbreakingly tragic thanks to a graceful, moving performance from Dench, whose sweetness and yes, baffling dimwittedness, turn her into the dotty grandma you'd jump in front of a flying bullet to protect. As written, her character does the film no favors, but Dench takes this dumbed down material and marches through it like an acting soldier, effortlessly holding the camera, the clunky script and Coogan -- with whom she has a clear-eyed, maternal chemistry -- in her grasp. You may want to curse the system that needs to soften female characters into gooey mush to make them palatable, but Dench works that rigged game with an emotional intelligence that carries the entire film and may even choke you up. Okay, not may -- will.