Walking into this movie, I knew nothing about it. I knew it starred Steve Coogan and Judi Dench, and that Judi Dench was nominated for her 7th Oscar for this role. Not much else you need to know, really.
I’m glad I didn’t know the plot of the movie beforehand (it’s based on a true story, but not one I was familiar with). It had some unexpected twists, even though it’s not the type of movie that relies upon plot twists to keep you entertained and interested.
Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, an ex-journalist who recently lost his job in the Blair administration–the movie takes place in the early 2000s. He’s a smart, cynical, atheist…a bit of a misanthrope. Steve Coogan co-wrote the movie. It seems he really enjoys playing these disaffected, cynical intellectuals who quote Coleridge or T.S. Eliot, and are always accompanied by a cheerier, more functional person. I found a lot of similarities between this movie and The Trip, partially because of that odd couple camaraderie. Instead of Rob Brydon, Coogan’s co-star is Judi Dench, playing the real life Philomena Lee.
Philomena, an Irish girl, fell pregnant when she was still a teenager. Relegated to a nearby abbey, she was at the mercy of the nuns there. They helped her survive childbirth, they took care of the child, and they took care of her. But she had to work 4 years at the abbey without pay, in exchange for that. There were many young girls there, unmarried ‘sinners’, and their children. The children were put up for adoption. Much to Philomena’s horror, they take away her son Anthony without giving her any chance to say goodbye, without even telling her he is leaving.
She keeps her secret for nearly her entire life, only revealing it to her daughter 50 years later. Her daughter happens upon Martin Sixsmith, who thinks he might use the story to get back into journalism. The unlikely duo begin an investigation to find Anthony, to meet him if possible.
I won’t give anything else away. Here’s the trailer:
Steve Coogan does a great job being simultaneously an understandable, if grumpy figure, and also being somewhat rude, selfish, and lacking in compassion. As a bit of a misanthrope atheist myself, I can be pretty empathetic about that.
Judi Dench, though! Amazing. Look, Judi Dench is a dame, an incredibly accomplished actress, and a very imposing figure. I saw video of her as Lady Macbeth (Ian McKellen was Macbeth), and she was terrifying. Daunting, physically. And we’ve seen her play Queen Elizabeth I, and be just as empowered, just as daunting. And M in the Bond movies is not exactly Blanche Dubois. They’re all very powerful, independent, strong women.
Philomena Lee is a very strong woman, a very brave woman. But she’s not intimidating. Not the way Judi Dench plays her. She’s strong, but she’s soft and simple. Not simple meaning stupid, simple meaning…uncomplicated by all the bullshit most of us spend our time on. Able to enjoy simple pleasures, able to be pleasantly surprised by the endings of thoroughly repetitive romance novels. Someone who takes pleasure in conversation, in new experiences. She’s compassionate, open-minded, and has a lot more wisdom than Steve Coogan’s character. And Judi Dench plays on that perfectly. When Philomena Lee works up her strength to make something happen, she does it. You can see frailty and age in her movements and her face, but you also see a complete resolution and an obstinate nature. She, an elderly Irish woman, holds her own against Sixsmith, a published journalist, ex-civil servant, a loud, opinionated man. She is, actually, a really great character. Perfectly played by Judi Dench.
I said I wouldn’t give any more away, but I will just say this. I always knew there was a reason I didn’t trust nuns. They’re terrifying.
And since I’ve mentioned The Trip, I’ll also mention that they’re making a sequel. It’s called The Trip to Italy, features more Michael Caine impressions, and comes out in May.