Working as virtual slave labor in the laundry, the unwed mothers are allowed one hour a day with their baby boys and girls. They must also agree never to attempt to find their children, adopted out for about $1500. Director Stephen Frears respects Philomena's traumatic experiences and her hopeful search, 50 years later, for her son. Fortuitously, she enlists the help of Martin Sixsmith, a recently fired ex-BBC journalist in Tony Blair's government.
Frears enhances the story by cross cutting between the early years and the investigation, exercising dramatic restraint, knowing no histrionics are needed for this heart-breaking tale. The most explicitly emotional scene occurs early with Philomena watching helplessly as her three-year-old son Anthony leaves with, she later learns, an American couple. During the subsequent search for Anthony, Philomena registers a series of more subdued but still powerful reactions.
As played by Dame Judi Dench, Philomena draws us in with acting that has no parallel today for its intensity and honesty. Truth by told, I'd go hear Dench recite the phone book, so amazing is her acting. Now 80, she's always been a phenomenon. Steve Coogan, as the journalist pressed to report this human-interest story, begins with resistance and a bit of disdain. Coogan's character and performance perfectly complement Philomena's, as he gradually and convincingly changes. He's a hard-nosed, volatile, skeptical atheist; she's a warm, direct, honest, forgiving believer. Frears milks some humor from her naïveté and lack of sophistication, but he also clearly admires her humane response to every setback, especially as the depth and breadth of the nuns' lies and cruelty emerge.
"Philomena" could so easily have become a self-indulgent, trite melodrama. Because of Dench's and Coogan's introspective portrayals and Frears' intelligent interpretation of Sixsmith's account, "Philomena" is a deeply, deeply moving drama that invites us to interrogate our own humanity. At a Landmark Theatre.