Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Directed by: Stephen Frears (“The Queen”)
Written by: Steve Coogan (“The Parole Office”) and Jeff Pope (“Essex Boys”)
It’s quite a treat to witness what an actress as highly regarded as Judi Dench can do with a lead role. There’s nothing particularly flashy Dench does on the screen that ever cries out for attention, but the transcending nature of her talent can sometimes be taken for granted. In “Philomena,” Dench, who will turn 79 early next month, proves that she is only getting better with age. Give actor/co-writer Steve Coogan all the credit in the world for complementing her performance beat for beat.
Based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” written by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, “Philomena” follows the title character (Dench) who reveals a secret to her daughter that she has been keeping for 50 years. As a pregnant teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena was sent to a convent where she was forced to give up her newborn son for adoption. Desperate to know what became of her child, she enlists the help of Sixsmith, a writer not all that interested in telling a human-interest sob story. When he meets and listens to Philomena’s tale, however, he immediately embraces it as his next writing project and the two set out to possibly reunite with her long-lost son.
Heartbreaking, sensitive and at times very funny, “Philomena” takes us on an incredible, full-circle journey and does it without one ounce of melodrama or false emotion. Flashbacks between the days a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) spends at the convent are nicely edited between the present-day narrative and never feel like they are being used as a simple storytelling tool. There’s content that demands attention on both ends of the spectrum and two-time Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) does a fantastic job balancing everything without losing focus on his leading lady and what she is going through during this life-changing venture.
Script-wise, it’s easy to see where an actor like Coogan was able to contribute his dry wit and subtle British humor. Every line of dialogue between Philomena and Martin rings true. Nothing is overstated or overwritten and each scene is paced perfectly as if it were a soldier marking time. Then, of course, there’s Dench, who deserves a seventh Oscar nomination (she won Best Supporting Actress for “Shakespeare in Love”) for the work she’s done here, the best since 2006’s “Notes on a Scandal.” Giving “Philomena” motivation, endearing attributes and a positive outlook on life that far too few people have today, Dench is miraculous. With “Philomena,” she has given a character many would pass by without notice extraordinary depth and resonance.