Judi Dench as Philomena Lee and Steve Coogan as the journalist who helps search for her long-lost son in Philomena (photo courtesy of the Weinstein Co.)
Just about everyone seems to love Pope Francis. By presenting a face of humility and innate decency to the world, he’s done wonders for the Catholic Church’s tarnished image. But now we have Philomena on the silver screen to remind us of just how much the church has to atone for. Decades before abusive priests became an international scandal, Irish girls who became pregnant out of wedlock were forced to pay for their indiscretion by laboring in convents. That was the easy part of their penance. The hard part was that church officials demanded the right to give their babies up for adoption. Philomena, based on actual events, shows what happened when one of those girls refused to forget the son who’d been taken away from her. Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, a devout Catholic who has borne her loss in silence for decades. But she’s never stopped wondering what became of the boy she named Anthony. Through a lucky set of circumstances, she’s introduced to Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former journalist who’s just been kicked out of a position with the British government. Martin is planning to devote his suddenly freed-up time to writing books on Russian history, but he reluctantly agrees to take on Philomena’s search for her son in hopes it will turn into a lucrative “human-interest story.” A trip to the convent that once housed Philomena becomes a dead end when a nun informs them that all adoption records were lost in a fire. Martin’s BS detector starts tingling, however, and it starts wailing when a bartender informs him that many Irish babies were “sold” to well-to-do Americans. Soon, Martin and Philomena are hopping a plane to Washington, D.C. Directed by Stephen Frears and co-written by Coogan, Philomena strikes emotional gold for the first half-hour or so. In flashbacks, Sophie Kennedy Clark is touching as a young version of the heroine, who can only watch in horror as Anthony is taken away by strangers. And it goes without saying that the great Dame Judi is just as touching as the older Philomena, an ever-shifting mixture of maternal love and Catholic guilt. It’s only after the film moves to America that it starts to falter. When the characters are hit by an unforeseen development, one gets the feeling that the filmmakers are just as flummoxed as they are. As if to fill time, they fall back on stereotypical old-people humor, but they can’t decide what kind of stereotypical old person Philomena is: the naïve type who would call a man a “gay homosexual” or the unexpectedly with-it type who can talk knowledgeably about condoms and gay “beards.” They also concoct arguments between the polite Philomena and the supposedly rude Martin, but Coogan’s portrayal isn’t cold-hearted enough to pull them off. In general, the film undermines its shocking revelations about Catholic hypocrisy by too often coming off as a sentimental comedy. One expects better from Frears, the director of such uncompromising classics as 1987’s Prick Up Your Ears. If the real-life Philomena’s story weren’t so absorbing, and if anyone less than Dench were playing her, the results would have been far less watchable. Rating: 3 stars (out of 5) CUTLINE:

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