My mom and her friends are going to adore Philomena.
They’ll take in a matinee, then follow it up with an early dinner. They’ll gush over Dame Judi Dench’s lived-in performance as a spartan, stubborn Englishwoman who’s eager to solve a personal mystery before her time on this planet has passed. They’ll chuckle as they recall some of Steve Coogan’s driest one-liners, delivered with the right amount of frustration and compassion. They’ll grouse about Hollywood’s inability to make more movies like this, which can be enjoyed – unapologetically – by ticket-buying members of “The Greatest Generation.”
And do you know what? They’re right. Director Stephen Frears pushes every button and pulls every string in such a fashion that Philomena satisfies multiple demographics but ultimately wins over its older target demographic. The events on which Frears’ story is based dictate those decisions, for sure. But it’s to that audience – the people wondering what happened to the great Angela Lansbury and her wonderful Murder, She Wrote mysteries – that I can whole-heartedly recommend Philomena. Everyone else might find it too slight.
This story actually happened. Frears and his screenwriters, Coogan and Jeff Pope, pull from BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith’s scandalous book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, published in 2009. As Frears’ drama gets underway, Sixsmith (Coogan) is a disgraced correspondent with a sullied reputation who is seeking fresh purpose. He’s handed the human-interest story of Philomena (Dench), a woman hoping to locate the son she was forced to give up while under the care of controlling nuns at the Roscrea country convent.
Though Sixsmith looks down on the assignment, he agrees to help Philomena with her search (primarily because he wants to impress an editor with his newshound abilities). They hit multiple roadblocks at Roscrea and around England, eventually following a lukewarm lead across the pond to the States, where hard truths about Philomena’s son start to muddy the waters swirling around our duo’s quest.
Philomena is closer in tone, tempo and execution to Frears’ early, British television projects than to the director’s transcendental feature films – movies that challenged the viewer’s moral center, from Dirty Pretty Things and The Grifters to Dangerous Liaisons and the underappreciated Hero. Are Dench and Coogan tested in these roles? No, but they bring enough wit and curiosity to their interactions to keep Philomena on track until the mysteries of the lead character’s missing son is revealed.
Along the way, Frears leans on the built-in sympathies of the situations (and some heavy-handed musical cues by composer Alexandre Desplat) to construct a mildly suspenseful, occasionally amusing crowd pleaser that entertains as it unfurls, but slowly fades into the mists of the English countryside.