"Philomena" Review: Craig's First Take

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A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
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I love a good evil nun movie. That “Philomena” stars Judi Dench is just an added bonus. Dench’s streak of being great remains untarnished. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her in a surprising and moving true story dramady from writer Steve Coogan, who we know as a supporting comedic actor in the “Night at the Museum” movies and “Tropic Thunder”, and his writing partner Jeff Pope.

Coogan also plays Martin, first seen as a Parliament spokesperson unfairly fired over a scandal he had nothing to do with. His next plan to write a book about Russian history is ceremoniously greeted with bored looks. Luckily he crosses paths with Philomena (Judi Dench), an Irish woman desperately seeking to know more about the child, born out of wedlock 50 years ago, that her nunnery made her give up as a teenager. She encourages Martin to help investigate, promising him a human interest story out of it.

The film looks at hardship and faith. Flashback scenes of Philomena in a nunnery are uncomfortable and nerve-wracking; unwed women all thinking today is the day some adoptive family is going to take their child from them. The strict adherence by the nuns to God’s law and punishment for those who disobey takes on even more weight as Philomena and Martin’s search for answers bring them to Washington D.C, where her son was adopted by a family, and meeting many of the people who knew him.

So much of this hinges on Dench. It’s a genuinely masterful performance of a woman overcome by guilt and shame who still managed to find solace in the same institution, and its core values, that did her wrong. This unassumingly kind woman funnily loves the trajectory of love stories and makes each of the hotel staff feel appreciated, and there are scenes of maternal, if not physical, love here that couldn’t be more moving. Coogan by comparison is the faithless cynic, a foil for Philomena’s unceasing belief but supporter of her quest.

Director Stephen Frears lays the sentimentalism on there, even having Philomena play home movies in her head of what she imagines her son would be like, but there is no denying this is a sometimes funny/sometimes tear-jerking crowd-pleaser, anchored by a performance by Dench that I think is maybe even better than she’s been in much of her past work. What happened to Philomena is shocking and her perspective on it never fails to amaze, and Dench really nails that in a performance that seems destined for an Oscar nomination.