​Philomena (Judy Dench) and journalist Martin
Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) set out to find the
son she lost 50 years ago.

Philomena is a poignant film that balances drama, humour and tragedy, and contains fine performances from a charming Judi Dench and a suitably world-weary Steve Coogan.

When a chance meeting provides journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) with a potential “human interest” story, he is scathing. Such stories are for “vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people” and are obviously beneath him. But his editor is enthusiastic and reluctantly he meets Philomena Lee (Dench), a devout Irish woman whose illegitimate son was taken from her fifty years before.

Sent to Rosecrea Convent, the young Philomena slaved in the laundry with other “fallen” teens and under the rigidly condemning eye of Sister Hildegarde endured a breech birth without expert assistance because “pain is her penance.” Allowed to see her son for only an hour a day, she had no chance to farewell the toddler when he was sold to an American couple, and convinced of her own sin, she kept everything inside for the next half century.

Cynical atheist, Martin, is wary of the evasiveness of the present “Sisters of Little Mercy”. Records have conveniently disappeared and he and Philomena are offered tea and cake, but no information, so they set out for the US on very different quests. He’s happy to exploit her story for his own professional resurrection, whereas she wants reassurance that her child found a good life and thought of her, as she yearned always for him. They’re an odd couple. Full of boundless enthusiasm for life, Philomena sees most she encounters as “one in a million.” Martin cynically mutters about statistical improbability, pigeonholes her as simple and barely troubles to feign interest in the ludicrous romance novels she describes in wide-eyed wonder and devastating detail. But as the pieces of the past fall into place, Martin finds he has much to learn from this relationship.

Dench and Coogan work beautifully together and the developing bond between them, her motherly attempts to bring out his compassion, and his growing concern for her, is a poignant reminder of the relationship she was denied with her own son. Whilst he is often angry and bitter, she, despite strong incentive to be the same, declares “I don’t want to hate people.”

Philomena’s faith gives her strength, and she remains devout both in spite of what’s happened to her, and because of it. When she asks Martin, “Do you believe in God?” he sidesteps. “I’ve always thought that was a difficult question to give a simple answer to.” Then he asks her, “Do you?” “Yes,” she replies, neatly pulling the philosophical rug from under his feet. This faith gives her the power to tell the elderly Sister Hildegarde “I forgive you,” and to inspire Martin to confront his own ethics and world view.

Whilst the 1950s attitude and practices of the Catholic Church are condemned, this is not a film about blame so much as tolerance and forgiveness. The focus is on love and the importance of the bonds between people, despite all that might keep them apart. Fittingly, it’s the “human interest” story that ultimately matters.

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