Philomena
★★★☆☆

Steve Coogan and Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, is a serviceable exposé of the Catholic church in Ireland’s forced adoption practice. More interestingly, it explores the power of faith for a woman wronged by the church’s culture of sexual shame. The film converts Sixsmith’s historical account of Michael A. Hess, an Irish child born out of wedlock to the young Philomena Lee and sold to an American couple, into a kind of feel-good road movie in which Lee and Sixsmith travel to America to search for her son, fifty years after he was born. The best part of the movie is the titular performance by Judi Dench. Playing against type as a distinctly low-status little old lady, Dench delivers her best piece of film acting since 2001’s Iris. Her accomplishment is all the more impressive considering that Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay trades rather shamelessly on her character’s lack of sophistication and simple good nature.

Lee’s painful and tragic ordeal certainly goes down easy when made into an 80s-era buddy picture in which the cynical former government spin doctor/journalist Sixsmith must accompany the provincial, wide-eyed Irish granny to America, in order to gather material for his human interest puff-piece. However, this treatment also diminishes the power of the issues at the heart of this fact-based story. Frears’ understated direction keeps the film from becoming self-righteous, but it also emphasizes the weaknesses of the screenplay. Each major story beat lands with a softness that makes the journey seem random and slight. Once the action shifts to America, for example, each turning point just “happens” to Lee and Sixsmith without requiring them to do much of anything, and the few obstacles that arise are instantly overcome.

Philomena is an emotionally charged, if not especially well-told, story, and Dench and Coogan make a decent screen odd-couple. However, the film is too safe and old-fashioned to have much staying power, and it lacks the craft and dynamism of the best social issue road movie like Rain Man or Drugstore Cowboy.

Directed by Stephen Frears
Produced by Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, and Gabrielle Tana

Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith

With: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Peter Hermann, and Sean Mahon

Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Editing: Valerio Bonelli
Music: Alexandre Desplat

Runtime: 98 min
Release Date: 27 November 2013
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color