Telling the story of a woman trying to reconnect with her son, Philomena sneaks up on you as one of the best movies of the year. Judi Dench plays the title character, Philomena Lee, who confesses the secret to her daughter that she gave birth to a son when she was a teenager. She was shunned by her parents and taken in by a convent but under slave-like circumstances.
Once she gives birth to her son, she signs away all parental rights and is only allowed to see him one hour a day. He’s “sold” to his adoptive parents when he’s 3, and Philomena has to watch the car drive away with her son inside. Flash forward 50 years, Philomena is finally ready to find him.
Enter Martin Sexsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script and produced the film), a disgraced Labour Government advisor who has now turned to writing. Philomena’s daughter gets him interested in writing her mother’s story and it begins an unlikely partnership to find her long lost son.
Dench grabbed another Oscar nomination for her work here, and it’s richly deserved. It’s one of her best performances ever. Within minutes of her appearing on-screen, you completely understand this woman just through Dench’s eyes. There’s real pain and regret there, but also optimism. She manages to see the good in everyone, even those that have caused her such suffering. Dench just oozes strength as she plays this woman who refuses to let her tough upbringing define her.
It’s interesting that she’s up against Meryl Streep in the Best Actress category, as they both play women who had rough childhoods, but have dealt with it very differently. Streep’s character in August: Osage County has let her agony swallow her whole as she’s a miserable, vile, angry woman. Dench’s character is the complete opposite. Philomena is dealt several blows throughout this film. You keep waiting for one of the bombshells to break her, but they never do. Her pain is only temporary as her strength pulls her through and she accepts things and moves on. She constantly surprises you.
Coogan and Jeff Pope have written a fantastic script here (that’s also grabbed an Oscar nom). With the flashbacks to Philomena’s time in the convent, I couldn’t help but compare them to the flashbacks in Saving Mr. Banks. While Banks’ flashbacks were long-winded and excessive, Philomena’s sequences are tight, precise, and extremely effective. They aren’t drawn out and repetitive. They get straight to the point and pack a wallop, as does the film.
The script, as a whole, is lean, charming, emotional, and surprisingly funny. You don’t even realize that you’re watching a road trip movie. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liasions, The Grifters) keeps things focused even when a scene goes from being extremely comedic to dropping a huge dramatic revelation.
Philomena absolutely deserved its nomination for Best Picture. Don’t miss this one.