Directed By: Stephen Frears

Starring: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

At the start of the Thanksgiving weekend, the last thing I thought I needed was a movie about some old lady trying to find her long-lost son.  Even with Dame Judi Dench, Philomena sounded like a made-for-television movie you'd find on Lifetime or the Hallmark channel in the wee hours of the night.  Nonetheless, I've now seen it, and I must admit that I was quite wrong.  Stephen Frears's Philomena packs a surprising punch by not following the standard playbook for a movie of its kind.  Frears also explores a social injustice of which I had never even heard.  All in all, Philomena is a solidly entertaining, emotionally resonant piece of cinema that doesn't disappoint.

In the early 1950s, Philomena (Dench) has unprotected sex with a boy at a carnival and soon finds herself pregnant.  Disgusted with his daughter, Philomena's father drops her off at a nunnery in Roscrea where she is to stay for the duration of her pregnancy and beyond.  At Roscrea Abbey, Philomena is coerced to sign a contract giving over rights to her unborn son to the nuns and forcing her into indentured work in their laundry room for the next four years.  After her son Anthony's birth, Philomena raises him until he's three.  At that age, he is adopted by some wealthy couple and is taken away from his mother.  To this day, Philomena has never forgotten her son and hopes to someday find him.  As time marches on, her hopes become unrealized dreams.  On what would be his 50th birthday, she wonders what has happened to her son and the life he's lived.

Journalist Martin Sixsmith has just lost his job within the British government.  Now unemployed, he's looking to start writing about Russian history.  While at a party one night, Martin receives an offer from his friend Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley) to join her working on human interest stories.  Scoffing at the idea, Martin quickly rejects this offer.  As it turns out, Philomena's daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) is at this party working as a bartender.  She mentions her mother's tale to Martin and convinces him to help bring Philomena's story to light and see what he can do to help her mother find Anthony.  From there, the oddly paired Martin and Philomena begin exploring this elderly woman's past to see what's become of her son.  All signs point to the United States.

Rightly so, Catholic priests have taken a lot of heat for the widespread sexual abuse of young boys that has occurred within the walls of their churches over the last several decades.  However, I had no clue that nuns in the old days were in the baby trading business.  Shaming young pregnant girls into indentured servitude and selling their children for a thousand pounds each is absolutely abhorrent, especially for nuns who have professed to follow Christ's teachings.  That being said, director Stephen Frears brings this injustice to light in Philomena in shocking clarity.  This potent comedy-drama reveals that priests weren't the only individuals in the Catholic Church with dirty hands, at least in Ireland.

While the film packs an emotional punch with plenty of unexpected curve balls as our leads delve into Anthony's life, this film centers on the performances of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.  Though they seem like an odd pairing, they work together quite well on screen.  For her part as Philomena Lee, Dench gives a nuanced performance.  At times, she's the wistful mother confronting her regrets, her "sins", and the life with her son she never had.  At others, she's a comical little old grandmother who has no problem whatsoever talking about sex, homosexuality, and other subjects one would have considered taboo for a woman of her age and upbringing.  For his part as Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan is Dench's amusing partner in crime.  He brings plenty of caustic wit to the screen as he endures many of Philomena's long monologues about the latest books she's read.  Coogan also gets quite impassioned on screen when he becomes a fierce advocate for Philomena and her cause.

One thing that's really interesting about Philomena is the dialogue on faith between Philomena and Martin.  A devout Catholic, Philomena understands the power of forgiving those who have wronged her.  A former Catholic predisposed to bashing any and all religious institutions, Martin does not quite see things her way.  Despite this major philosophical difference, Philomena and Martin do care for one another as friends and trade quite a few barbs.  Their relationship is symbolic of what makes this film work so well.  Grappling with this profoundly disturbing social injustice, Stephen Frears manages to give us a film that is at times surprisingly lighthearted and fun. 

For those of you looking for some counterprogramming to Catching Fire or some of the other films at the box office, this is the right choice for you.  Fueled by strong performances from Dench and Coogan, Philomena is a solidly entertaining film.  This comedy-drama gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.