I have been borderline obsessed with Stephen Frear’s Philomena, the Judi Dench starring true life story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who hid the story of nuns selling off her son for fifty years and her journey to meet the child she never intended to let go. Aside from being one of Judi’s best performances–a masterwork in perceived innocence and charming simplicity–the film has everything: criticism of religion, criticism of religious critics, lies, evil nuns, flashbacks done right, and did I mention Judi fricking Dench?! By her side in understated exceptionalism, comedian Steve Coogan (Oscar nominated for his witty, sharp screenplay) takes on a straight man journalist who grows while still letting the shine go to Philomena’s troubling, emotional journey.
Where the screenplay mixes an odd couple duo with a tear inducing maternal pilgrimage, Judi Dench’s precise and lived in performance portrays decades of internalized guilt as it pours out in stalwart batches of emotional catastrophe. Capturing her back and forth decisions to chase the constant obstacles of Catholic secrecy and international son searching, Dench is devastating in her relatability. This is my grandmother; this is my older aunt. But in her lighter moments, she thrives with those neighbor lady vibes. Describing her romance novel–cooing “and he only has the one foot”–she’s committed to the fantasy she was kept from by sexual naïveté and generational lack of romance. She has An eagerness for buffets and politeness alike but was call you out with a verbal lashing. It’s hard for an actress of her stature and legend to come off as charming and genuine; there’s such an unassuming levity, you’d expect she was a lady from the grocery store who gets really excited about the perfectly ripe raspberry samples.
Philomena is one of those sad but very real gems that proves the length to human randomness, that wealth and stature doesn’t equate happiness or what is best, and the ever useful reminder that organized religion can be very dangerous. As other people try to dictate her pain, Judi Dench allows Philomena Lee’s heartache and love for her long lost son to supersede the selfish desires of those either blocking her path or claiming they are one her side. Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen) knows no end to how to use a stellar actress.