A human-interest story that claims spite for human-interest stories, Philomena has some pretty divisive issues at its core, ones that leave it torn between contrasting approaches. For writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, adapting Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee seems like an occasion to tweak familiar formulas, as they exhibit a compulsive need to distance themselves from the story’s intrinsic sentimentality. For director Stephen Frears, it’s a chance to play up that same sentimentality, underscoring emotional moments with excessive bathetic flourishes. Working at cross purposes, these two sides make for a fractious movie whose internal conflicts mirror those experienced by its odd-couple leads.
Philomena concerns the story of a teenager who, after a single youthful indiscretion, is forced into servitude by a gaggle of sinister nuns, her new baby whisked off to parts unknown. Philomena (Judi Dench) spends the next 50 years suffering quietly, aging into the apotheosis of an adorable Irish granny, all the while wondering what became of her son. She likely would have remained in the dark, if not for a chance run-in with Martin (Steve Coogan), a disgraced government official whose brief, ignominious career as a spin doctor has just blown up in his face. Desperate to recover from the scandal that cost him his job, he tries to scuttle back to his former career as a serious journalist, instead applying his stubborn, inquiring personality toward the sort of puff piece that he claims to hate.
Setting up a twinned recovery narrative, the film spends most of its time in investigative mode, with clues leading the pair from the verdant hills of Ireland to a cold, sepulchral Washington D.C, their personal differences gradually coming to a boil. Martin is a staunch atheist, an arrogant Oxford grad with a fussy upper-class pedigree, who scoots about in BMWs and compares barmbrack to pan dulce. Philomena is steadfastly religious and wholly unpretentious, the kind of person who marvels over chain restaurants and breathlessly consumes bodice-ripper romance novels. The two inevitably learn from each other in their travels, but it’s telling that Martin remains the active party and receiver of life lessons, with Philomena left to bravely shoulder emotional duress and impart hints of quiet dignity.
Philomena does handle this tricky territory with reasonable proficiency, with a third act as interested in questions of forgiveness and faith as the requisite waterworks. Yet Frears’s heavy-handed approach and the schematic demands of Coogan and Pope’s script both assure that these questions are secondary, and Philomena never develops beyond a device, even with Dench’s strong performance. The film constantly leans on Philomena’s naïveté for laughs, and the portrayal feels patronizing even (or especially) when it’s attempting to be charitable toward her simple lifestyle. Martin remains a miserable jerk throughout, but it’s clear that despite his misdeeds we’re meant to side with his rational view of the situation, his obstinate refusal to grant forgiveness for the horrendous misdeeds committed toward this innocent woman.
The film incorporates a subplot involving Martin’s monstrous editor back in London, frothing at the mouth over the mounting drama of the story, with no regard for the person on the receiving end of these experiences. This reads as the screenwriters wringing their hands over the carnivorous demands of the human-interest format, the tendency toward spinning suffering into gold. Yet while it’s to Philomena’s credit that it bothers to confront these questions at all, attempting respect for Philomena’s humble way of life, it does this mostly as a corrective to Martin’s boorish refusal to account for the feelings of others, teaching him a Very Important Lesson about humanism. The film evinces obvious affection for Philomena, celebrating her simplicity and cherishing the surprises she provides, but it never comes close to understanding her complexities.