The breakout small film of the 2013 race? Stephen Frears’s “Philomena,” a dramatic comedy starring the almost 79 year old Judi Dench, (her birthday is December 9th, and Steve Coogan, (who co-wrote and also produces the film). This is a quite simply, a gem of a film. And after 11 days, the $5 million it has in the till is nothing. “Philomena” is the surprise hit of the season.
The movie is based on the book by the BBC correspondent and investigative reporter Martin Sixsmith, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Sixsmith recounted the injustice of church doctrine in Ireland which condoned the sale of Lee’s baby as an unwed teen fifty years ago. She was an unwed teen who’s parents forced into a convent to give birth, then forced to watch as her 3 year old baby was taken from her. She also had no idea then that he was sold to a wealthy couple in to the Untied States.
To make matters worse for Lee, she was then forced to sign a document that would not allow her to find him/or vice versa. Now it’s 50 years later and Sixsmith, played by Coogan, reluctantly meets her and then joins her on her quest to find her son. Her story is deeply emotional and her long hidden torment heartbreaking.
The divine Dench is just perfect as Philomena, and Coogan, plays her intellectual, snobbish and quite cynical partner with his usual comic brilliance. His extreme disdain for the Church overwhelms him and as the story progresses, so does his respect and affection for her.
Dench usually plays classy upper crust roles, like Queen Elizabeth, Evelyn Greenslade in ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,’ and even ‘M’ in the James Bond movies. But here she plays a working class nurse, salt of the earth, albeit naive woman, who was carrying this unfathomable burden in her heart for half a century. Dame Judi touches every acting chord with sincerity and respect. Her feelings, reactions and timing are priceless and pure acting gold.
Kudos to Frears and Coogan. This story could have easily slipped into the mushy, sappy and sentimental category. Thankfully it doesn’t. Instead, you are captivated by her story, angered by the injustice that was done to her, and admiring of her indomitable faith. Not one word in this poignant and clever script is wasted or extraneous.