Stephen Frears is not the foremost of directors, but he very rarely makes bad films, and Philomena is yet another jewel in his crown. It’s a simple enough story, but those are oftentimes the most rewarding, because they tap into something near and dear to most of us. This is indeed another one of those based-on-true-events type tales, and it starts off with Martin (Steve Coogan) a former journalist and political spin doctor. He’s now not doing much of anything aside from contemplating writing a book on stuffy Russian History. He’s also lacking in conviction, while being weighed down by cynicism, so it’s not exactly the most uplifting of perspectives.
But then he’s put in contact with the retired nurse and spirited Irish lady Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), on track for a great story. Although he’s not very experienced with human interest stories, he forges ahead with her’s. 50 years before Philomena met a young man and ended up getting pregnant, but the local nuns forced her to work in the convent out of penitence for her “sin.” She could only see her son briefly each day and then one day she lost her Anthony altogether, when he was taken away from her, never to be seen again. The events still haunt her years later, but she is finally ready to share her secret.
With Sixsmith by her side, they first visit the convent where it all happened, but very little information is unveiled, because while the nuns are polite, they are far from obliging. Martin is able to discover that Anthony was adopted by an America family as was the custom in the 1950s, and he ultimately ended up in the United States. He and Philomena travel across the sea to D.C. to try and get a lead on him.
There Martin makes another discovery. In the U.S. Anthony went by the name Michael Hess and was a prominent aide to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The hardest discovery however, is that he passed away 8 years prior. Although deeply troubled by this news, Philomena resolves to try and meet anyone she can who knew her boy. They make the rounds without much luck, but there are several revelations that make the whole trip worthwhile.
Everything comes full circle, and it’s in these difficult moments that Philomena shows her true character, and her unwavering ability to forgive in the hardest of circumstances. By now Martin is as invested as she is, and for the life of him he cannot understand how she could forgive such injustice done against her. But that’s exactly what grace is, an undeserved gift, and she gives in willingly.
For the entire film Martin has been hounded by his editor about angles and getting the juiciest bits for his story, but by the end it resonates with him too much for him to publish it in some superficial outlet to grab waves of media attention. He respects Philomena too much for that, and yet being the strong and resilient lady that she is, she resolves that people need to and deserve to know all that has happened.
This film was a lot more thoughtful than I would have initially given it credit for, because I assumed it would be a weepy tale full of heart, which it was, but it also had great insight into life. Some may see the film as an indictment of hypocrisy that crops up in religion and that is certainly noticeable, but what stands out more to me is the indefatigable spirit of Philomena. She is a woman of great resilience and faith, loving others well even when it is most difficult and really reflecting what it is to be a genuine person of faith. Thus, the dynamic between her and Martin is a wonderful one, because their differences in temperament and worldview do not stop them from forming a far deeper bond of friendship.