Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Stephen Frears’ “Philomena.” | THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
Dame Judi Dench plays the title role in “Philomena,” a film “inspired by true events” about a working-class Irish woman who was sent to a convent as a pregnant teen. There, her child is taken away from her and adopted by an American couple. Now, 50 years later, Philomena enlists the aid of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the screenplay), a disgraced journalist, to find the son she never knew.
Martin agrees to perform this service so that he can write a human interest story about Philomena. But the pair’s efforts to answer questions about her son make for a slow-going first hour of the film. Only when a queer twist is introduced does the film become engaging.
One of the problems with “Philomena” is its lack of subtlety in contrasting its two main characters. Martin is snobbish champagne to romance-novel reader Philomena’s diluted Bucks Fizz. He makes things happen, while she lacks savvy about how the world works. They rub each other the wrong way but eventually rub off on each other. Thankfully, there are a few graceful moments at the film’s end that demonstrate how the characters have changed as a result of their experiences together.
Judy Dench, Steve Coogan don’t quite click in Stephen Frears’ “Philomena”
Dench often plays an elegant, smart lady, but in “Philomena” she is cast against type. Her unsophisticated character shocks Martin by saying the word “clitoris,” knowing what a gay man’s “beard” is, and wanting to watch Martin Lawrence cross-dressing in “Big Momma’s House 2” in the American hotel where their search takes them. Viewers might be amused by the estimable actress making all of this sound convincing, but really it is as dreadful as it sounds. Coogan’s Martin tries to contain his exasperation at Philomena, and some viewers may find themselves doing the same thing.
Dench does have a few strong moments. Recalling her quickie romance that produced her son, Philomena admits the sex, however sinful, was amazing. The regret and joy in her voice register clearly. Similarly, her reaction to various bits of news about her son proves poignant.
Under director Stephen Frears, however, the storytelling is often high melodrama, as when syrupy music swells and a young Philomena is prevented from saying goodbye to her child as he looks out the back window of a car while being taken away. The cliché fails to achieve the emotional payoff. Likewise, when Philomena returns to the convent and arrives at the window and gate where she last saw her son, the “haunted by the awful past” feeling seems contrived.
As Martin and Philomena wend their way from Ireland to the US, encountering a variety of characters who lead them to some truths, they discuss their beliefs in God and sin. Even here, the passion feels forced. The chemistry between two very fine actors never quite works. It may be that Dench is capital-A Acting, exaggerating Philomena’s quirks, like enjoying the little squares of toast — croutons, the sophisticated Martin would call them — at the salad bar.
What both the film and Dench do get right is the regret Philomena has about burying the secret memory of her son in a convent for 50 years. As Philomena struggles with the decision to go public in Martin’s story, we can see her inner pain and anxiety. There are too few moments of genuine emotion like this in the film, though at the end Philomena takes an action that is surprisingly powerful and oddly transcendent.
Only in its closing moments does “Philomena” become the redemption tale it should be, and that may be the redemption of the film itself. But in a film that spends most of its time showcasing the odd couple antics of Dench and Coogan –– enjoyable as they are at certain moments ––it’s a shame Frears took so long to reach the inspired storytelling he was capable of.
PHILOMENA | Directed by Stephen Frears | The Weinstein Company | Opens Nov. 22 | Paris Theatre, 4 W. 58th St. | theparistheatre.com | Landmark Sunshine Cinemas, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarktheatres.com