‘Philomena’: Never can say good-bye

November 18, 2013

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The past, as William Faulkner famously wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Or, as Paul Thomas Anderson said in his film “Magnolia,” “We may be through with the past – but the past ain’t through with us.”

That’s a lesson the Catholic Church seems to learn repeatedly. The pedophilia scandals of the past decade are just one part of the equation. Great Britain, after all, has its sorry history with the Magdalene asylums and their enslavement of seemingly thousands of unwed young Catholic mothers, whose babies were sold to line the Church’s well-padded coffers.

Yet Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” which opens in limited release Friday (11/22/13), is not a film about retribution or condemnation. Rather, this is a true story about forgiveness – and one woman’s capacity for it.

Her name is Philomena Lee and, as played by Judi Dench in what should be an Oscar-nominated performance, she’s a deceptively ordinary older woman with a mission. Fifty years earlier, when she was an Irish schoolgirl, she got pregnant and was sent to the Magdalenes. They put her to work for four years, while delivering – and then selling – her baby.

On what would have been her child’s 50th birthday, she gets the courage to look into it. Her daughter happens to meet Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC journalist who just happens to be out of work. Recruited for the Tony Blair administration, he’s been forced to resign for speaking the truth.

At loose ends, Sixsmith is at first put off by the idea of a human-interest story like Philomena’s. When people ask him what he’s doing, he claims to be working on a book about Russian history. But he grudgingly realizes that this story might have legs.

So he takes Philomena to the abbey where she had been a resident (prisoner?). But the nuns there are less than forthcoming, claiming that all records were lost in the “big fire.” Later, Sixsmith finds out that, in fact, the fire was not some conflagration that consumed the abbey but, rather, a bonfire the nuns held to burn the abbey’s records.

He also discovers that the abbey had been selling its residents’ babies to childless Americans. So he and Philomena get on an airplane and head for Washington, D.C., in hopes of finding further pieces of the puzzle.

When I said that Philomena was deceptively ordinary, it’s a tribute to Dench’s performance. Initially, she makes her seem like an unworldly Irish housewife living in London. But, as Dench reveals the character’s layers, we discover just what kind of emotional resources the woman has. A retired nurse who raised a family of her own, she has a startling capacity for wonder at the kinds of things most people take for granted. In her tight little circle of a life, the idea of a chocolate on the pillow of her hotel room fills her with delight and surprise. Her heart, it seems, is still open and available, despite the buffeting it’s received in the course of her life – and in the course of this adventure.

Coogan, known for his distinct comic underplaying, does triple-duty here: as star, but also as the film’s producer and writer. As Sixsmith, he’s the smart, reticent Brit who is a snob about Philomena’s middlebrow taste and homey affect. But he’s convincing as he learns to care about this woman who has been so deeply wronged. His blend of wit and anger, combined with Coogan’s perfect timing, give this character depth and layers that also surprise.

Frears, always a director who knows how to adapt to material as different as “The Grifters,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Queen,” here understates without robbing the story of its emotional power. This film will definitely bring a tear but will also elicit regular laughs.

“Philomena” is a beauty, a detective story with heart and humor that can’t help but provoke outrage – as well as admiration for the capacity for empathy by a woman who has been deeply wronged.

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