Review: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan shine in the the unconventional true-life ‘Philomena’

There’s a certain type of movie that I think of as a Harvey Weinstein Oscar Special, and on paper, “Philomena” fits the bill. After all, it’s got a starring role for Judi Dench. It’s based on a true story that can easily be exploited to create some outrage that can be used to sell the film. And it’s directed by Stephen Frears, who is the very model of the kinds of filmmakers that Harvey loves to enlist as he stages his annual march on the Kodak Theater.

While it seems like there’s a version of “Philomena” that could have been terribly calculated and cynical, exactly the sort of Oscar bait that it sounds like, the actual film is something very different. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and based on the non-fiction book by Martin Sixsmith, this is a smart, genuinely-felt film that tackles some difficult ideas head-on. I found myself surprisingly moved by the film, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

Philomena Lee (Dench) has spent her life haunted by thoughts of the baby she gave up for adoption when she was very young. It wasn’t a choice she made, but one that was forced on her by the nuns at the convent where she was sent when she got pregnant. It’s impossible to view what happens to Philomena as anything but an immoral crime, and the idea that it was done in the name of the church is infuriating.

When Philomena crosses paths with Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), he’s come to his own professional point of crisis. He initially dismisses Philomena’s story, but he has a hard time shaking it, and he ends up approaching her about writing a human interest story about her. Even then, he seems like he’s doing it for some quick money at first. He agrees to help her start the process of tracking down the child so she can get some sense of closure, but he doesn’t seem to have any sense of just how difficult a trip it’s going to be.

So much of the movie hinges on the dynamic between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, and the script beautifully serves both of them. This is a film that never makes an easy choice, and while Coogan has found plenty of places to introduce humor into a fairly stark and difficult story, it never undercuts the seriousness of what happened to Philomena. Little by little, the story of what happened to the boy comes into focus, and Frears does a great job of not only staging the present-day stuff but of painting a picture of what life was like for young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark). When you see the way Philomena’s child was taken from her, the natural reaction would be anger, and it would make perfect sense for the film to also indulge in some righteous fury. But the real Philomena Lee is a Christian in the truest sense of the word, and the forgiveness that drove her in real life is an important component of the film. It seems hard to imagine anyone being able to retain faith of any kind in the face of this sort of monstrous abuse of trust, but Dench is unflappable. The way she plays the part, you understand why she has to forgive something that seems unforgivable. She refuses to let herself be shaken, no matter what she learns during her search.

What really sells the story for me is that Coogan lets Sixsmith say all the things Philomena won’t. When she faces the people who wronged her, it is Sixsmith who rages. Very few films even attempt to explore spiritual matters in any sort of mainstream way, so seeing something that does it with the sophistication and grace that “Philomena” manages is sort of shocking. It’s hard not to see the behavior of the nuns towards their young charges as a punishment, a harsh sentence for the crime of being young and stupid and in love. The film also manages to grapple with the difficulty of being a gay public figure in the ’80s during the worst days of the AIDS crisis, and once again, Philomena’s heart proves to be far more accommodating than stereotype would suggest.

Dench is amazing in the film, and watching how fully she fleshes out all of the contradictions that drive Philomena, I am suddenly impressed all over again in just how supple a performer she is. I’ve read about this phenomenon in Ireland, and there was a harrowing film about a decade ago called “The Magdalene Sisters” that covered some of the same ground. But by focusing on this one woman and her remarkable spirit, this becomes more than just an excuse to shake a finger at the people who made these choices and who wronged these young women. If you saw the Michael Winterbottom film “The Trip,” with Coogan and comic Rob Brydon on the road together, you know that Coogan’s great at mining the humor from the simple friction of two radically different people sharing travel, and he certainly takes advantage of the contrast between the snide and cynical Sixsmith and the wide-open and guileless Philomena.

There is an inevitability to some of the film, and narratively, it seems fairly linear. Even if this doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d typically see, I would urge you to try. It is uncommonly smart in the way it deals with its difficult subjects, and more than that, it is that rare film that actually aims to illuminate how totally different perspectives can co-exist.

“Philomena” is playing now in limited release.