Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a former journalist turned British government official who’s recently lost his job in disgrace. His preference would be to concentrate on writing a book about Russian history to fill his time, but a human interest story comes his way. He disdains the idea of that type of journalism but even his cynical nature is trumped by a realization. As human interest stories go, this is a fascinating one. Plus no one seems to be clamoring for his ruminations about Lenin and Brezhnev.
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is still haunted by the events surrounding her separation from her son fifty years ago. After becoming pregnant at age 18 and giving birth to Anthony, she is sent to an Irish convent. She is forced to work long hours in the laundromat with access to her offspring for one hour per day. Anthony is soon put up for adoption without Philomena’s consent. On what is Anthony’s 50th birthday, his long lost mother takes further steps to find him by enlisting Martin.
This eventually leads to what becomes a road trip drama with heavy comedic undertones. The mix of slightly snooty Martin with Philomena provides humorous results. She seems often incapable of understanding sarcasm which Martin excels in. They are also polar opposites on the faith scale with the title character having never lost it. The same cannot be said for her traveling companion.
Washington D.C. becomes their landing spot where surprising revelations (surprising to some) about Anthony come out. The lighthearted nature of the proceedings continue with heavy drama interrupting it. Philomena is torn between a visit to the Lincoln Memorial and watching the Martin Lawrence pic Big Momma’s House on the hotel movie service. And there’s amazement on her part about free breakfasts and drinks on airplanes.
While we are dealing with a true story here, writers Coogan and Jeff Pope (adapting Martin’s book) could’ve spent a bit less time exploring Philomena’s personality quirks. It’s good for some laughs, but it’s also highly familiar stuff. What works best is when Philomena, both the character and the film, stay in the dramatic lane. By the time all is revealed about the backstory on why she never could find her son, the pic delivers serious emotional material that is effective. It’s just an uneven process getting there.
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan make a solid team. We’ve come to expect greatness from Dame Judi and she is terrific here. Yet Coogan is impressive as well as he veers away from his usual type of material. They alone are reason enough to recommend Philomena and its manageability to get at our heartstrings after awhile is another.
*** (out of four)