Philomena (2013): Frears’ Fact-Inspired Dramatization of Woman’s Search for Lost Child, Starring Judi Dench

philomena_frears_5British director Stephen Frears is in top form in “Philomena,” his most fully-realized film since “The Queen,” an effective, fact-inspired dramatization of the of the search of an elderly woman for her long-lost child.

The film is based on the true story of a poor Irish woman, beautifully played by Judi Dench, who fifty years after being forced to give her son up for adoption, teams up with a savvy British journalist, played by Steve Coogan, who co-adapted (with Jeff Pope) to the screen Martin Sixsmith’s heartrending book.

At 77, at the prime of her game, Dench adds another stellar performance to an already impressive resume that should render her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  At a time when there are not many lead roles for actresses of her caliber and age, Dench commands the screen with skill, charisma and gravitas.  Though she has given pleasure to numerous theater-goers in her long and accomplished stage career, as a screen actress, Dench is sort of a late bloomer (or late comer).  Dench belongs to the same cohort of actresses as Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith, but she began making movies decades after her estimable peers.

philomena_frears_2In what is one of the most inspired and inspiring casting in recent years, Dench and Coogan (also credited as producer) enact on the big screen yet another variation of the Odd Couple, composed of two individuals who could not have been more different in social background and personality.

The Weinstein Co. will release this enjoyable drama, laced with wit, humor, and intelligence on November 22 in a platform mode, after playing to great critical acclaim in the fall film festivals in Venice and Toronto.

As a youngster, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark), a sexually naïve girl, meets at a fair a handsome boy, and before she can absorb any knowledge (or understanding) his tempting seduction leads to her pregnancy.

philomena_frears_4Unfortunately, her deviance lands Philomena in an institute for “fallen women,” run by nuns of the Sacred Heart, where she gives birth under horrible circumstances.  She is led to believe that “pain is her penance.”

Forced to spend years working in the sweat-shop laundry to pay off their “debt” to the order, she and the other girls are allowed to see their children only one hour per day, until Mother Superior finds a buyer for the children. The scene in which Philomena suffers and screams as her little Anthony is taken away by a rich American couple is heartbreaking.

Cut to 50 years later and a fateful meeting between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a BBC journalist and former bureau chief who has held an advisory job with the prime minister. Jobless and with little prospects for one, he learns about Philomena’s hidden story.  Supported by a newspaper, Martin takes her to Washington to traces her son.

The ensuing tale, which is both dramatically and emotionally touching, describes in great details their search, which borders on the determined, if not obsessive. Unlike most American movies, which pretend that there is no stratification along socio-economic lines, “Philomena” dwells on the sharply segregated British class system.

philomena_frears_3Coogan, better known for his comedic work, has penned an engaging narrative, laced with witty dialogue that propels the story and provides joy in just watching—and listening—to the actors who deliver the lines.  One of the most accomplished and versatile actresses around (remember her turn in the James Bond series?), Dench is blessed with a remarkably nuanced and musical voice, ably emphasizing every line and each syllabus.