published Thursday, November 28th, 2013

‘Philomena’ wrings comedy from tragedy

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    Judi Dench, left, and Steve Coogan in a scene from "Philomena."

By Connie Ogle

“Philomena” is a good movie about a terrible injustice that continued for decades in Ireland and affected thousands of young women. Based on a true story — one that you will marvel at by the end of the film, so remarkable and infuriating is the outcome — the film details the search of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) for her son 50 years after he was put up for adoption by a Catholic orphanage and workhouse that made virtual slaves of the disgraced and traumatized young women it took in.

Ireland’s brutish adoption laws stonewall any attempt to track down an adopted child after the fact, and so Philomena, still half-believing she deserved what happened to her for getting pregnant, has gone on with her life (we don’t learn much about her past beyond the fact she has a grown daughter and used to be a nurse). But on her son’s 50th birthday, she finds herself staring at the one photograph she has of him and knows she has to find him.

Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script and produced the film), a former BBC correspondent and recent civil servant dumped from his Downing Street job amid controversy. With nothing but time on his hands, Martin is threatening to write a book on Russian history, even though the mere mention of it sends everyone else into spasms of boredom. Then he runs into Philomena’s daughter at a party, and she pitches her mother’s plight as a human interest story. He pitches it to an editor (Michelle Fairley of “Game of Thrones”) and soon he has an assignment: File a story that is fabulously happy or a desperately sad. Either one is acceptable, the editor tells him. Anything in-between will not suffice.

Much of the beauty of “Philomena,” which was directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), lies in its odd-couple characters and the superb actors portraying them. Martin and Philomena are two very different sorts of people who baffle and surprise each other but who can’t help but grow close as the search goes on. Coogan plays Sixsmith (who wrote the book on which the film is based) as a casually snobbish, upper middle class smoothie impatient at working-class Philomena’s appetite for romance novels and salad bars (when he goes out to eat, he eats in a little bistro around the corner, he tells her). Dench, of course, is marvelous, and her no-nonsense presence grounds the film and keeps it from growing maudlin.

There are lessons to be learned by Martin, of course, but they are not all predictable ones, and what could turn cloying turns out to be heartfelt in the hands of Coogan and fellow screenwriter Jeff Pope. They also get big laughs with Philomena’s frank and clinical pronouncements on sex, which are as startling to the audience as they are to Martin (she is a nurse, after all).

Earlier this year, Ireland officially apologized to the 10,000 or so women forced into the workhouses; many refused to accept the overture, understandably so. They might, however, appreciate the makers of “Philomena” for putting the country’s dreadful policy in the spotlight.

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