There is a moment in Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” where the audience almost loses it.
Almost. And that tells you most of what you need to know about the film.
It’s the moment when the heroine – whom the audience has come to love unreservedly (being played by Judi Dench doesn’t hurt) – finally stands up for herself and confronts one of those who have been denying her access to even the tiniest morsel of information about the son she had out of wedlock.
The audience cheers and claps – decorously, spottily. It doesn’t go nuts a la Jennifer Hudson’s big Oscar-winning moment in “Dreamgirls.” There’s no standing up in their seats and screaming at the screen, just passionate but polite recognition that what is happening on screen is what we’ve waited more than an hour for.
When “Philomena,” opening here today, was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was runner-up to “12 Years a Slave” as the audience favorite.
That seems eminently just. It’s funny, moving and as sentimental as can be, but it never quite goes “full-on.” That may be because this is based on a true story that needs no melodramatic contrivance to stoke the audience’s affections and outrage.
It’s about a cynical and mildly unpleasant BBC journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who’s in a career lull because he said the wrong thing at the wrong time in a virulently censorious world. He’s importuned by a young woman to listen to her mother’s tale even though he openly thinks “human interest stories” are for “vulnerable, weak-minded people.”
Rather than go back to the Beeb to “eat gigantic quantities of humble pie with a side order of grovel sauce,” he pursues the woman’s story, which you’d have to be comatose not to find moving and more than a little outrageous.
When she was a know-nothing teenage girl in Ireland, she got pregnant and was promptly packed off to a convent to have an “illegitimate” son.
She named him Anthony and, for three and a half years, she was allowed to see him for an hour a week while she worked in prisonlike forced labor even though she was legally “guilty” of nothing. And then one day came a large car with wealthy people in it to whisk away Anthony as well as another child – a girl – whom Anthony became hopelessly attached to. Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems that the convent was doing a brisk business in black market babies with American customers.
So as his ticket back to some kind of journalistic consequence (Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” anyone?), Sixsmith forms a partnership with Philomena to find her lost son. The search takes them to America, where Philomena is blown away by the “immense portions” of food regularly served and by the possibility of watching “Big Momma’s House” on the hotel room telly.
There’s sweet, gentle, ever-so-lightly barbed comedy here as this retired, no-nonsense psychiatric nurse and mordant BBC reporter become a tandem that can’t help but be delicate with each other given each new piece of information about the son yanked from Philomena 50 years before.
As the revelations proceed, it is, of course, totally involving. And, too, we are applauding the journalist’s ironic occupational savvy at the same time we’re hoping for another quasi-maternal chiding from Philomena to humanize him.
All of this was reported and put into a best-seller by Sixsmith in 2009. With the church dealing with so many other assaults on its reputation, there was a public climate receptive to a different kind of peremptory injustice in churchly doings.
It’s a powerful story, but director Frears and the script co-written by Coogan never allow it to wallow or pander. There’s quite enough to deal with – to love, to deplore, to regret and to rejoice.
And when you have so many close-ups of Dench’s magnificent face reporting it all (the record on film, no doubt), loving the film is possible. Disliking it, it seems, is not.
3 stars (Out of four)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Director: Stephen Frears
Running time: 88 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language, thematic elements and sexual references.
The Lowdown: The fatherless child of an Irish woman is sold to Americans by the Irish convent that took her in and, years later, she enlists a journalist’s help to find him.