One of the most difficult parts of filmmaking is precisely judging the tone to use in what is essentially a tragic story. If the movie turns on the emotional waterworks, the film will inevitably seem too mawkish. If the film tries to take the story with a comic bent, it opens itself up to changes of snarkiness. If it tries to keep a measured distance from the emotions on screen, the film will undoubtedly feel too clinical.
It’s a tricky balancing act, one which Philomena pulls off nearly perfectly.
Which is even more impressive because it is based on a true story.
Despite a horribly sad back-story, Philomena is a surprisingly funny and ultimately life-affirming movie-going experience. All at once the movie is a funny odd-couple road comedy, an involving investigative look at some past transgressions of the Catholic church, a test of faith and forgiveness, an involving international mystery and an attempt for a reunion half a century in the making.
And yes, there are some absolutely heartbreaking parts as well, though Philomena does not overdo them. Co-writer (and star) Steve Coogan knows the power of the story, he does not feel the need to stack the deck.
Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an upbeat and simple Irish woman who has only one true regret in her life. As a naive young woman, she had a brief fling with a man she met at a fair which led to an unplanned pregnancy. She was sent to a nunnery where she (and many other unwed mothers) had to work hard labor in return for shelter and a doctor to help her give birth. After the baby was born she was allowed just one hour with her child a day, until the boy was three and she had to watch helplessly as the nuns gave her son to a rich American couple for adoption.
Philomena ended up having a good life: moving to England, getting married, having a 30-year career as a nurse, having another daughter and becoming a loving grandmother. She never told anyone about her vanished son, convinced that the loss of the boy was her penance for her sin. However though her faith was strong, she never completely came to terms with her penance and never, ever stopped wondering what happened to her boy. Finally, on his 50th birthday, Philomena confided her long, dark secret to her daughter.
Through her daughter, Philomena meets Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist who has just recently lost his government PR job in a very public fashion. Lost, bitter, disheartened and in the middle of a crisis of faith, Sixsmith is trying to figure out his next career move. Sixsmith realizes that Philomena’s story would make for an interesting human interest story, with which he could get his name back out there and get a foot back into journalism. Therefore, he agrees to help the old woman try to track down her long-lost son.