‘Philomena’ brings depth to tough issues

by Varun Bhuchar | 2/9/14 4:50pm

Bad things happen to good people. It’s an inevitable fact of life and one that we are loath to confront when things do not go our way. This was not the message I was expecting when I walked into “Philomena” (2013), a film marketed as a comedy that unexpectedly ends as an uplifting tearjerker.

Based on a true story, “Philomena” follows the life of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman who holds a terrible secret: at 16, she gave birth to a child in a monastery, and the nuns forced her to stay and work off her debts. When Philomena’s son is 3 years old, she must give him up for adoption. Nearly 50 years later, Philomena travels to America to track him down with the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced ex-BBC journalist who wants to write about her story.

“Philomena” is a brilliant film, tackling many heavy issues in a short amount of time. It examines a woman’s right to choose during a period when sex was not discussed and women were shamed for having intimate relations outside of wedlock. It delves into the Catholic Church and how faith impacts our lives. It also develops the poignant relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith as they traverse the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.

Philomena’s emotional gut punches are its most impressive and endearing quality. In the packed theater where I saw it, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time the credits rolled.

For all of the hardship Philomena endures, she remains relentlessly and perhaps foolishly optimistic. When she arrives in the United States, she smiles politely at everyone she meets; her character is a rare combination of humility and fortitude.

Dench’s acting contributes to Philomena’s alluring charm throughout the film. Adding any more superlatives to her acting career would be an exercise in futility. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved as she plays a sad, endearing woman beaten against the rocks of life, yet refusing to quit.

Coogan, however, stretches his considerable talents throughout the film. Best known to American audiences as the British man who shows up for short cameos in films like “Tropic Thunder” (2008) and “Night at the Museum” (2006), Coogan produced, co-wrote and acted in this film. Initially gruff and sarcastic, Sixsmith melts under Philomena’s unrelenting optimism and determination.

“Philomena” does not wrap up with a neat, happy ending. Its somewhat bittersweet conclusion, which I will not spoil, may satisfy some viewers, but others will be left hungry for justice. “Philomena” is ultimately a glass half-empty or glass half-full movie — your conclusion depends on your outlook.

Rating: 9.5/10

“Philomena” is currently playing at the Nugget.