The true story of “Philomena” hits so close to my own past that I couldn’t leave the theater without tears.
Director Stephen Frears understands well how a factual tale with engaging drama and, most of all, character development can work. (Look at his other movies such as “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and “The Queen,” for example.) “Philomena” tells the story of two rather lost souls who, together, find their strengths.
This is based on Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Martin — played by Steve Coogan, who also wrote the screenplay — is a journalist who really does not want to write a “human interest story” about a birth mother searching for a son she was forced to surrender 50 years before.
The always superb Judi Dench plays Philomena as a long-tormented woman who is sometimes a bit dotty and prone to getting on Martin’s nerves. She desperately wants to find out what happened to her son, who was born in an Irish convent.
Eventually, Martin becomes Philomena’s crusader as he tries to unlock the secrets behind the adoption. Because so many years have passed, he finds the investigation tough going until he stumbles upon an unlikely source. He and Philomena share a long journey to continue their search, and what they discover leads to even more research and surprises.
This is an interesting blend of a fish-out-of-water tale (Philomena, a newcomer to travel, is often surprised by her surroundings), a buddy flick and a mystery. It works beautifully because it fuses these approaches so that it is dramatic, emotional and puzzling simultaneously. Philomena and Martin form a kind of detective duo that works well because they think so differently.
Watch Coogan as he ceases rolling his eyes at his exasperating travel companion and begins to, somewhat begrudgingly, understand her perspective. Dench, not surprisingly, shows her outstanding range as a woman who, after being tormented for decades by guilt, finally finds the confidence she needs to ask questions and demand answers.
While I watched the mystery unfold, I couldn’t help but think of my own quest to find my biological mother when I was an adult. Lois became a dear friend who regularly spoke with and visited me and my adoptive parents. Because of what she told me, I well understand the anguish that birth mothers can face with surrender. Frears depicts that sympathetically and respectfully.
Anyone who likes well-told true stories will enjoy this movie. Those whose lives have been touched by adoption will appreciate it all the more.