Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"
It's no surprise that the Weinstein Co. is releasing "Philomena," which is one of those movies aimed squarely at the Academy middle. It took a while for writer-producer-star Steve Coogan--who seems to be trying to perform some kind of career rehab by playing a softer-hearted creature than his usual persona--to persuade Stephen Frears to do the directing honors. This relatable true story of a woman forced to join other unwed mothers at a Catholic convent in a state of servitude should be heart-wrenching and often is, thanks to a naturalistic unshowy performance by Judi Dench that deserves awards kudos. It's based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee."
But something about this movie rubbed me the wrong way--maybe it's the constant flashbacks, or the sense that the filmmakers are manipulating our emotions at every turn, rubbing us in the wrenching facts of this case of a young woman forced to give up her son to adoptive parents. Coogan goes out of his way to redeem his sardonic cynic journalist, who initially goes for a human interest story to promote his flagging career and then gets genuinely caught up in this lovely woman's feelings as they try to track down her lost son. Will there be a reunion?
To Coogan and Frears' credit, the movie is also dealing with conflicts of faith. The atheist journalist's attitudes toward religion and the terrible practices of a deceptive Catholic Church are pitted against a woman to whom dreadful things were done who yet remains faithful and thinks well of people in general, always giving others room for doubt. Coogan has been in town to promote the moving drama while Dench remains in England nursing a post-operative knee.