As someone who tends to find based-on-true-story films formulaic, I was pleasantly surprised at how subtly complex “Philomena”. With clever humor, tight writing and phenomenal acting, director Stephen Frears creates a dynamic film that will have audiences invested in the journey.
Based on Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”, this film focuses on an Irish woman named Philomena (Judi Dench), whose son is taken from her and sold by the nuns in the Catholic convent she’s indentured to. Fifty years later, Philomena meets Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a salty political journalist who wants to revive his broken career with her story. Together they head to the United States to find Philomena’s son.
The film’s biggest strength is its characters. Dench perfectly embodies the naïve but lovable nature of Philomena, while Coogan’s rendition of the self-involved, apathetic Sixsmith is purposefully irritating. Screenwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope create developed protagonists, but address the topic of religious radicalism without being degrading.
Unfortunately, these powerful leads result in one-dimensional secondary characters. Like the antagonist Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) who is simply conveniently “evil.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there has been some speculation on the authenticity of the story. Frears’s themes of companionship, regret and spiritualism prevail, regardless of the film’s supposed inaccuracies.