Philomena-02 I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see Philomena, Stephen Frears latest movie.  An hour and a half of suffering, the 1950s Irish Church in all its shame and shaming of the poor and weak, grim reminders of the Magdalen asylums which had gone on for two hundred years.  Recent revelations of children’s’ work houses and sexual abuse by priests, under cover of spiritual caretaking, have filled my disgust drains to over flowing.  On the other hand   was a draw and  himself has quite a train of memorable movies, from My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) to The Grifters (1990), to The Queen (2006).  Others certainly liked Philomena: 93% at Rotten Tomatoes.

It turns out I needn’t have worried.  Based on research and a book published in 2009 by Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the movie handled what could have easily have turned saccharine or tabloid with just the right mix of anguish, courage, effort and quiet humor.

Judi Dench is perfect as the older Philomena Lee who after 50 years decides to try to find her child, born out of wedlock and taken from her by the nuns, when he was three years old.  , who is credited with the screen play as well, plays Martin Sixsmith, the investigative reporter and does a wonderful job of balancing his analytic skills with being a compelled companion to the elderly and slightly off kilter Mrs. Lee.  She has never been on an airplane before and is thrilled to get a free drink.  Chocolates on the pillows of a hotel are a revelation.  Yet she handles contemporary ideas as if she had grown up with them, wondering at one point if her son might have been “bi-curious,” or an attractive female colleague had acted as his “beard.”

Solving the mystery of where the child had been taken is what first engages us.  Believe me, you will be surprised.  And more surprised when you realize that the photos of the now adult son with a certain President, are not Photoshopped but, shall we say, evidence? 

[Throughout the movie there are bits of old home movies, recognizably from super-8, and earlier,  cameras. Apparently, while some are cleverly doctored footage of scenes shot in making the movie, others are actually from the time in question.]

But it is the relation between the two that really touches.  Most of the movie is the two of them traveling, almost a ”buddy-movie,” two people who would never meet in ordinary circumstances being thrown together and left to deal.  Dench and Coogin are perfect.  And I have to say that Dame Judy, who is of deep Irish roots, made me believe I was seeing my own nana come back to life — the same chatting with any stranger she happened to meet, the curiosity about the new in a sensibility grown in the old, the slightly odd remarks that are often quite perceptive.

The marketing of the movie makes it seem more light hearted than it is, pitching to the feel-good patina of the December holidays.  PG-13 and a bright sunny poster with Dench/Lee holding a wide grin don’t indicate what you will remember from the film.  Yes, there are light moments but they give contrast to the proper darkness:  “I did not abandon my child, he was taken from me.”  The fearful search, that she will not find him, or that she will: “What if he’s homeless?  What if he died in Vietnam?” makes her anguish palpable and real.  When it turns out that Sixsmith had in fact once met the adult son, her craving for any detail, “How was his handshake?  Did he smile?” takes us to the depth of her loss and what it means to never have known the most commonplace of details.

I came out not as disheartened by yet another reminder of human perfidy and more cheered by a woman’s resilience  than I’d expected, though not as ready to forgive as Philomena was, in the movie and apparently in life.  Forgiveness must be one of the seven life-giving virtues but it turns upon itself if it encourages continued bad behavior. Forgiveness and repentance are probably not linked in the mysterious algebra of human behavior but for me if there isn’t sympathetic movement between the two, the behavior in question is surely continuing, perhaps adjusted but not corrected.