Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Philomena is based on journalist Martin Sixsmith’s book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (2009). Lee is, in fact, a real woman who, with the assistance of Sixsmith, embarked on a quest in the early-2000s to track down the son she gave up for adoption 50 years earlier. It’s important to note the film’s opening title card, which informs us that what we’re about to see was only “inspired by” true events.
The book, which focused more specifically on the life of Michael Hess (Lee’s biological child), was deemed a fictionalization by some of the very people depicted within its pages (including Hess’ professional associate Susan Kavanagh). The film takes even greater liberties in telling Lee’s story.
What does this mean in terms of Philomena‘s relative entertainment value? Director Stephen Frears, working from a screenplay by producer-star Steve Coogan, has crafted an entertaining tale. At a base level, the impetus for the story checks out. Irishwoman Philomena (Judi Dench) was a young adult when she willingly signed over her parental rights to the Catholic church’s orphanage. Three years later, her son was adopted by Americans. She kept his existence a secret well into her life, not even telling her own adult daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). When Philomena finally spills the beans, insisting the child was taken from her (a claim she contradicts later in the film), Jane encourages her to find someone to help tell her story.
Former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) has just lost his government job (amidst some poorly-explained controversy), not to mention his religious faith. While mulling over a plan to write a book about Russian history, he is approached by Jane about taking on her mother’s story. He initially scoffs at the idea of writing a “human interest” story, the type of puff piece he normally scorns. He needs the money though. Off he goes to America, accompanying Philomena, in search of a publishable story to satisfy the paper which agreed to fund the investigation.
If you don’t already know how the story unfolds, Philomena offers some genuinely effective surprises as Philomena discovers who her son is and what kind of life he led after leaving Ireland. There are some flashbacks to a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) at the nunnery in which she worked, depicted as a painfully naive young woman. The nuns are depicted as unremorseful villains, utterly unsympathetic to the plight of Philomena—both as a young and older woman.
Dench plays the title role with such winning good humor, we can’t help but root for her. But as depicted in the film, Philomena doesn’t come off as a very intelligent individual. Her oft-repeated mantra that her child was forcibly taken from her is at odds with her admission that she signed a closed adoption agreement without coercion.
As for Coogan, he’s a revelation. Normally recognized for comic performances (Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2), he delivers a finely-nuanced portrait of a slightly self-centered opportunist who learns to set aside his professional aspirations in order to help another person. Martin’s dedication to Philomena is touching and believable. Coogan’s screenplay (co-written with Jeff Pope) is undeniably manipulative, however. Apparently there is truth in the utter lack of cooperation on the part of the nuns who found a family for Philomena’s son. They are depicted as not wanting to help reunite the long-separated parent and child. But entire scenes, including those involving an elderly Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) who was deceased by the time Sixsmith began investigating with Philomena, are manufactured out of whole cloth.
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray offers a warm, glowing presentation of Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. Flashback sequences appear to have been given an intentionally dated look, with a bit more grain and less saturated color than the contemporary scenes. Those flashbacks were apparently shot on 16mm film and as such offer a slightly softer focus than the rest. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is nothing to get excited about, given the generally quiet nature of the film. But for what it is, it sounds great. Dialogue is crisp and Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-nominated score is well integrated in the mix.
Extras include a commentary by screenwriter Coogan and Pope, a 9-minute interview with Judi Dench, an all-too-brief two-minute bit featuring the real Philomena Lee, and a 24-minute “Q&A with Steve Coogan” (taped after a December 2013 screening in Los Angeles). The package also includes an UltraViolet digital copy.
If a “true story” requires significant retooling in order to make it a compelling film, is it still worth telling? Philomena walks a very fine line between fact and fiction—with a liberal dose of conjecture thrown into the mix. The result is an entertaining movie that many are likely to find heartwarming. Most of those viewers won’t look any further into the facts behind the adaptation, but those who do just might feel a bit cheated by the filmmakers’ artistic liberties.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00GSBNFP2]