Cynicism and optimism dance in touching ‘Philomena’

Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin (Steve Coogan) try to get information about Philomena’s child from Sister Claire (Cathy Belton) in “Philomena.” (Courtesy photo)

Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin (Steve Coogan) try to get information about Philomena’s child from Sister Claire (Cathy Belton) in “Philomena.” (Courtesy photo)

By M. Scott Morris

Daily Journal

It wouldn’t take long for me to work up some righteous anger on behalf of Philomena Lee, but she’d probably prefer I let the anger go.

“Philomena” is based on the true story of an Irish girl who got pregnant out of wedlock.

Her father left her at a convent, where she gave birth to a boy that she was allowed to see for an hour a day. The rest of the time she worked in the laundry, attended choir practice or was otherwise under the watchful eyes of nuns.

A fancy car pulls up to the abbey one day, and when it leaves, Philomena’s son is in it.

Most of the story takes place 50 years after the boy’s birth. Philomena (Judi Dench) finally breaks the silence about the child and the way he was taken from her.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a big public relations man for the British government until a politically incorrent email got him fired in a high-profile way. We find him bitter with no direction.

Before he joined the government, he was a journalist for the BBC, and he reluctantly takes on Philomena’s case.

The unlikely pair deal with unhelpful nuns at the abbey, then follow her son’s trail to the United States.

Early on, I wondered when the movie was going to pull me in. A lot of what I’ve just told you has to be established before the story is well and truly moving under its own power.

And that story develops slowly, as Sixsmith’s cynicism and Philomena’s optimism begin to rub off on each other.

Director Stephen Frears gives his actors plenty of room to work. The characters might not change as quickly as audience members would like, but the pacing feels perfect by the time the end credits roll.

The screenplay is by Coogan and Jeff Pope, and they based the movie on the real Sixsmith’s book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”

This is a deeply affecting film, and if you go, you might find yourself getting angry on the mistreated woman’s behalf, just as Coogan’s character does.

Then again, maybe Philomena’s spirit will cool the fires and replace them with something broken but still soothing.

I give “Philomena” an A.

It’s showing at Malcos in Tupelo and Oxford.

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