In poll after poll both here in the States and in the UK, where “Philomena” was produced, journalists routinely rank among the least trusted professionals, down at the bottom, along with politicians, of a hierarchy that lauds the trustability of doctors and nurses and nuns. But this film sets the hierarchy of trustability on end.
“Philomena,” which won the audience choice award for narrative feature at the Hamptons International Film Festival yesterday, is the true story of Philomena Lee (played here with wry humor and a keen sense of social class by Academy Award-winner Judi Dench), an Irish woman who is searching for the baby she was forced to give up after she was sent to a convent when she became pregnant as a teenager.
Philomena is aided in her search by Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), an Oxford-educated former BBC reporter, who had just been sacked from his public relations job at Downing Street. Out of work and wandering through a cocktail party, Mr. Sixsmith runs into a former colleague, an editor of human interest stories, who asks him to pitch her a story. He grimaces, then runs into Ms. Lee’s daughter, a caterer working the party, who begs him to help her mother find her lost child. It would be a great human interest story, she says.
“Human interest stories are a euphemism for stories about weak-minded, ignorant people, written for weak-minded, ignorant people,” Mr. Sixsmith quips as he brushes her off, before reconsidering the next morning and agreeing to take on the story, if for no other reason than to avoid the hopelessness of unemployment.
The story, directed by Stephen Frears, is based on the real Mr. Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” and adapted for the screen by Mr. Coogan and Jeff Pope. It takes the unlikely pair of investigators from Roscrea Abby, where a teenage Ms. Lee had screamed out to her son through the convent gate as he was taken away to his new home, to Washington, D.C., after Mr. Sixsmith learned that Irish babies had been sold by the nuns for £1,000 apiece to couples in America.
Over the course of their voyage, what begins as a process that journalists crassly call “working your sources” becomes a true friendship, as Ms. Lee scolds Mr. Sixsmith for his arrogance and his jokes at the expense of people of lower social status, while Mr. Sixsmith implores Ms. Lee to stop forgiving the church for misleading and lying to her as she attempts to track down her missing son.
It’s a relationship adroitly built by the two principal actors on interpersonal exchanges as nuanced as Mr. Coogan’s raised eyebrow or his comforting hand on Ms. Dench’s shoulder as she learns more and more about her son’s life in America, and on Ms. Dench’s resolute firmness, playful sexuality and her ingrained Catholic instincts for forgiveness of others, but penance and shame for her own missteps.
The film’s many plot twists are as good as any fiction, made more intense by their basis in truth. By the end, the two have returned to Roscrea Abbey, where they confront the sister who had lied to both mother and son about the fact that they’d both spent their lives looking for one another.
The nun, Sister Hildegard, aged and wheelchair-bound, has nothing but disdain for Ms. Lee, blaming Ms. Lee’s lifelong suffering on the “carnal incontinence” of her teenage pregnancy. In the film’s understated, yet powerful, climax, Sister Hildegard told Ms. Lee that her lifetime of suffering was a fair price to pay for her youthful mistakes.
“If Jesus was here now, he would tip you out of that f’ing wheelchair,” says Mr. Sixsmith.
“I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you,” says Ms. Lee, fixing her steely gaze on her partner-in-crime.
“I’m angry!” says Mr. Sixsmith.
“That must be exhausting,” says Ms. Lee.
The responsive audience at Monday night’s bonus screening at the United Artists Theater in East Hampton seemed as impressed with the film as audiences earlier in the festival who had voted for it as their favorite, giving “Philomena” a hefty round of applause and watching well on to the end of the closing credits.
“Philomena” also won the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival and was a runner-up for the audience choice award at the Toronto Film Festival. The film is slated for U.S. release Nov. 22.