Thanks mostly to the considerable talents of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena is able to tackle some awfully weighty material with a sizable dose of good humor. Dench plays the titular character, an elderly Irish woman who, with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), tries to reconnect with the son she was forced to give up for adoption almost a half-century ago. If searching for your biological son after some 50 years of separation isn't heavy enough, consider the circumstances of the adoption and the painful discovery awaiting this pair all these years later. After she got pregnant out of wedlock and was disowned by her family, Philomena entered what was essentially indentured servitude at a convent in her hometown -- her hard labor and the availability of her son for adoption to wealthy parents exchanged for medical costs incurred during the pregnancy and shelter for her and her soon-to-be estranged son.
This is an awfully unflattering depiction of the Roman Catholic Church, and lest you think it is limited to the decades prior, there are the sisters of the present-day convent who repeatedly give Philomena the runaround as she tries to locate her son. It's a particularly cruel and callous stroke from a group of people who are supposed to be compassionate and caring.
When Martin and Philomena are finally able to track her son down, there is no teary reunion, just heartache. As it turns out, her son has been dead for years, claimed by the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. Here again we get a damning look at a conservative institution; her son -- a gay man -- was chief counsel for Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush as funding for AIDS research was pulled.
The parallels between Philomena's experience and her son's are obvious. The institutionalization of rigid sexual mores and the belief that those who stepped outside them deserved to be punished led to personal tragedy for both. A less deft film would have gotten bogged down by that fact, succumbing to the temptation to be preachy or just wallowing in its own multi-generational misery.
Again, Dench and Coogan deserve the credit for that. They are a classic odd couple and they both possess loads of charm. Philomena is a good-natured simpleton who likes romance novels, finds Big Momma's House appealing and does not question the existence of God. Martin, meanwhile, is a pampered elite and a hopeless cynic who almost turns down the chance to talk to Philomena because he doesn't see the value in "human interest" stories. Only together do they strike a natural balance to the deeper, philosophical questions implied while also having the comedic timing to provide ample light moments.
There had to have been considerable pressure on director Stephen Frears and the writers (of whom Coogan is one) in the crafting of this story. Come down too hard on the Catholic Church and you lose the audience that still sees it as a force for good. But let the institution wriggle off the hook -- a real option given Philomena's unshakeable faith and her general optimism -- for its considerable wrongs and you lose a different audience that is less interested in forgiveness.
The film itself seems to wrestle with this dilemma, giving it an uneven tone. It's almost as if Frears and company are overcorrecting when they feel things tilting too far in one direction. The first 20 or 30 minutes are a perfect example of this -- the condescension toward Dench's character, channeled primarily through Coogan, laid on more and more thickly until the focus abruptly shifts to Martin's overly dour view of the world. Back and forth it goes.
This see-saw sensation helps Philomena pull off a nifty trick. It can talk more openly about religion and politics than most people could in polite company. If you're an atheist, it's safe to take your religious friend with you to see this film and vice versa. But this trick is mostly sleight of hand.
Should Philomena forgive the nuns who kept her son hidden away in America even after his death? You'll probably feel strongly one way or another, but somehow the film seems to argue for both possible answers. It's possible that conciliatory tone might be more true to real life or at least better at Thanksgiving, but that's not really why we go to the movies is it?