It's safe to say Philomena is not the movie the embattled Catholic Church was hoping to see this holiday season. Directed by British filmmaker Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons) Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, a survivor of what has come to be known as the Magdalene laundries. In a system supported by the Irish government, some 10,000 "fallen" young women — mostly pregnant and unmarried — were sent to convents between 1922 and 1996 where they were deprived of their rights and subjected to forced labor. Many remained in the laundries for years against their will and had their children taken away and sold to wealthy American families. It was not until early 2013 that the Irish government finally issued a formal apology for the atrocities, and last summer it agreed to pay $45 million to the estimated 770 laundry survivors who are still alive and had conducted a decade-long campaign for reparations.
British journalist Martin Sixsmith's best–selling 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee may have provided some inspiration for that apology. An article Sixsmith wrote for The Guardian recounting his experiences helping Lee discover the truth about her son — published with the unforgettable headline "The Catholic Church Sold My Child" — caught the eye of British actor and comedian Steve Coogan, who bought the rights to Sixsmith's book and went on to co-write, co-produce and star in Philomena. That genesis led Coogan and Frears down the unusual path of creating a film not only about Lee's personal story but also spotlighting Sixsmith's behind-the-scenes journalistic role in unraveling a mystery, which is not a part of his book. The surprising result is a first-rate holiday movie about forgiveness that's entertaining and substantial enough for gatherings of disparate people with inevitably wide-ranging tastes. What else happens at the holidays?
Part road movie and part odd-couple buddy film, Philomena is mainly about having someone live solely in your imagination for 50 years only to experience that person becoming real. It's an extraordinary and moving story that's easily relatable. Judi Dench is perfectly cast in the title role, and her devout yet feisty Philomena is instantly recognizable from daily life and believable in her journey. Stretching admirably in a fairly serious role as Sixsmith, Coogan adds just enough humor to lighten the subject matter without trivializing it. He comes across as a man on a mission with a significant story to tell.
Though their nearly opposite temperaments and worldviews sometimes teeter on the brink of caricature, Dench's and Coogan's characters generate real chemistry as they embark on a shared quest despite wildly disparate motivations. A wonderfully unflattering portrait of big-time magazine publishing constitutes a small but welcome bonus. Philomena may not be the gritty, hard-hitting expose one might want given the harsh realities of the Magdalene laundries, but the story is full of unexpected twists and turns and its eventual payoff feels earned. — KEN KORMAN