Judi Dench stars as a folksy Irish Catholic woman in need of emotional closure in Philomena, a very funny and sentimental film which, like its titular character, wears its heart on its sleeve. This isn't to say that it is a tear-jerker, though; while some scenes inevitably might move a viewer to tears, it is not the movie's intention to merely play on our feelings. On the contrary, this is a story--based on real people and events--that emphasizes forgiveness (a rarity in popular culture) and elevates kindness and pragmatism over despair and self-pity. It is also a laugh-out-loud comedy, as well as a turn-by-turn investigation that reveals some surprises. Director Steven Frear (1988's Dangerous Liaisons and 2006's The Queen) helms a briskly-paced, evenly toned crowd-pleaser.
We are accustomed to seeing Ms. Dench in the roles of powerful, no-nonsense women, most recently as M in Skyfall and other Bond films. As Philomena Lee she is quite the opposite: she is very dependent on others and spouts nonsense frequently and with perfect comedic timing. The story opens with a teenage Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) who gets pregnant out of wedlock and is cast out, presumably by her shamed parents, to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland where she spends several years doing laundry. The nuns at the convent convince her that the slavish work is proper punishment for her sexual sin. They delivered her baby, who grew to toddler age, and Philomena was allowed to interact with him for only one hour per day. Then, her son is adopted against Philomena's will and leaves the convent, and is lost to her. What follows 50 years later (and for the majority of the film) is a little old lady's effort to track down her long-lost son. What she will do with any knowledge she gleans of him is mostly ambiguous; she seems particularly interested in knowing whether he embraced his Irish heritage, and whether he ever "thought of" his mother.
Assisting Philomena with her quest is freelance journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Coogan's Martin is the worldly, arrogant straight man to Dench's sometimes bumbling, sometimes prudish, small-time Philomena. They are quite the odd couple--this is the foundation for most of the jokes--as they travel many miles and for many days, searching for answers; Sixsmith's work as a journalist has earned him a few key contacts in political circles that end up paying dividends. He is an outspoken atheist who finds Philomena's faith in God absurd, especially considering the decidedly cold, inhumane manner in which she and her son were treated decades earlier.
When the pieces of the puzzle are at last put together, the picture turns out to be one more of personal moral challenge for Philomena and Martin, and less of a revelation about the son, Michael. A gripping third act confrontation with the convent's nuns provides a remarkable opportunity for Philomena to act out her faith, put the past behind her, and personally display for Martin and several others what a religious life should be about: compassion and forgiveness. How accurately this dramatization deviates from what was really said and done, we don't know. But Philomena is a satisfying, heartfelt movie. It is one of the best films of 2013.