Austin Film Fest: “Philomena” is a story about finding lost things

Colin McLaughlin

For a movie that’s only 90 minutes long, “Philomena” doesn’t rush anything. The stakes could not be higher for the title character (Judi Dench), but despite the air of mystery and exciting discovery in the latter half, there is no urgency. “Philomena” is one of those rare treats that can draw you in on premise and performance alone. Based on a true story (documented in “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith), “Philomena” is a story of hope and regret.

Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, a retired Irish nurse that confesses to her daughter one night that she had an illegitimate child as a teenager. The nuns at the abbey where Philomena was raised were none too pleased and forced the young mother to give her child up for adoption. Philomena has thought about her lost son every day for over fifty years and now decides to find him. With the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former BBC correspondent and recently disgraced PR rep for a branch of the British government, Philomena travels to America in search of her son.

Coogan (who co-wrote and produced the film) delivers a surprisingly muted performance as the straight man to Dench. There are still moments of sarcasm and humor, but they come from a bitterness that Sixsmith carries through most of the movie. He’s angry about losing his job, cynical about life in general, and can’t seem to decide where he wants to go next in his life, halfheartedly announcing that he’s writing a book on Russian history throughout the story. He helps Philomena out of boredom more than anything else, thinking that at least he can write up a decent human interest story. There’s no clichéd moment where Philomena brings about a great change in him, but Martin does find himself affected by the woman’s journey.

While Coogan delivers a nuanced performance, “Philomena” is Dench’s movie and the veteran actress is nothing short of delightful. Dench plays Philomena as a sweet old woman who, while not oblivious to Martin’s sarcastic muttering, often prevails but ignoring his snide remarks. Yet through the humor (of which there is a surprising amount in an otherwise somber story), Dench never drops the weariness on her face that signals a lifetime of regret defined by a single moment in time. She makes you laugh and cry in the same moment and seems to take real joy in the search despite the pain that motivates it. 

Throughout “Philomena,” there are no shocking revelations or desperate hunts for clues,  just a tired old woman who wants to know that the son she hasn’t seen in half a century is all right “Philomena” is based on a true story, never going out of its way to enhance the drama of the action, but still finds ways to make Dench’s struggle universal, her search for her son appealing to the paternal instinct of any audience member.