In a film dynasty of million-dollar blockbusters, complex 3-D effects, and edge-of-seat thrills, it is a relief to sink into a movie with some good old-fashioned charm. Philomena is one of these films; it’s a satisfying watch simply because of commendable acting and heartwarming story.
The plot is driven by Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman, and her search for her long-lost son. The movie starts with a flashback to the 1950s – Philomena’s teenage years. Strict, pitiless nuns force Philomena and the other unmarried teen mothers to toil in the laundries of the infamous Magdalene convent. The convent is a prison, with iron gates and meager hour-long time quotas for the girls to spend with their children.
Philomena resigns to her shackles, living for the moments spent with her son, until he is given up for adoption. Devastated, she buries the secret for fifty years, until she convinces herself that the sin of lying is greater than the sin of premarital sex.
Her story falls into the hands of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently fired but sophisticated reporter who is struggling take a next step in life. He grudgingly agrees to report the on the human interest story, and leads Philomena on the trail of her missing son.
The Martin-Philomena duo is hilarious. Coming from a different social class, occupation, and generation, Sixsmith finds Philomena’s manners and gratitude unnecessary. Philomena tells Sixsmith off for his harshness and down-to-business reporting style. In one memorable scene, Martin endures a painful experience of Philomena narrating the entire plot of a romantic novel.
The funny moments add to film, but what really sticks with you are the striking themes of sadness, hope and forgiveness. Judi Dench’s natural performance as a fragile old woman with a robust maternal instinct keeps the emotional moments from turning into cliche moments.
Philomena’s initial appearance as a quaint British film with little action may bump it down your list of movies to watch before Oscar night. But it’s a rare movie that’s engaging without needing constant gripping action – a human interest story that’s beautiful, without the cheese.