The great sins of the 20th century are already too many to list, but let us note one more: the abduction of infants from mothers deemed unworthy or undesirable by governments and religious institutions. Thousands of children were kidnapped from leftist parents during Argentina’s and Spain’s respective dictatorships, while children born to native populations in Australia and the United States now constitute “stolen generations.”
Based on actual events, Stephen Frears’s Philomena adds another country to that list: Ireland, where the Catholic Church carried out the wholesale theft and trade of children born to unwed mothers. This affecting, impressively intelligent drama follows one elderly woman’s search for her biological son, who was sold without her permission five decades earlier to a rich woman who pets the boy as she might a cat.
Given that grim premise, Philomena is remarkably funny, with stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan amiably sharing the comic spotlight. Coogan plays Martin, a Labour party aide to the Blair administration who gets sacked for describing 9/11 as “a good day to bury bad news.” He slums it for a while as a journalist and eventually meets Philomena (Dench), who has kept silent about her stolen firstborn, Tony, until now. Already reluctant to speak ill of the Church, she bristles when Martin tries to pigeonhole her into victimhood. Rightly wary of the reporter, Philomena agrees to have her story told on the condition that Martin help her find Tony.
An angry atheist and a civilized churl, Martin rolls his eyes at the constancy of Philomena’s faith and her pedestrian tastes. “I’ve always thought Christopher was a bit of a Mickey Mouse saint,” he tells her when she hangs a medallion of the holy man from his car’s rearview mirror. “I now know what a lifetime of the Daily Mail and Reader’s Digest and romantic fiction does to someone’s brain,” he later reports to his wife.
With her Edith Bunker haircut and granny glasses, Philomena might well be in the same sewing circle as the “bigoted woman” who asked Gordon Brown where all the immigrants were suddenly coming from. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that “Phil” sits on a stockpile of wisdom — she just chooses to squirrel it away for a rainy day. Intelligence ebbs and flows in Dench’s eyes, depending on how clever Philomena chooses to be in a given situation. Needless to say, the grande dame’s performance, alternately goofy and grave, is an absolute tour de force.
Since the film’s structure is based on a series of revelations — each one unexpected and unfailingly moving — they shouldn’t be recounted here. But it gives away nothing to say that their long trip together provides plenty of opportunities for the two characters to passionately debate religion and journalistic ethics, while the friction between their worldviews offers silent commentary on the perniciousness of British class inequality. Frears indulges in a couple of cutesy touches, but he handles the frequent tonal shifts between tragedy and comedy with masterful sensitivity and timing.
“After the sex, I thought anything so lovely must be wrong,” the vulnerable but unflappable Philomena confesses about her first time, lowering her head in pensive regret. Her slow journey toward finally feeling worthy enough to hold her head high is surprising, upsetting, and not to be missed.