Judi Dench is wonderful in the title role of Philomena Lee, a real woman who spent half a century searching for the out-of-wedlock son she had been forced to give up.
The film is based on a book by Martin Sixsmith—erstwhile Labour government advisor—who persuaded an editor to underwrite the investigation in return for a “human interest” story. Martin initially disparages the genre, then is converted when he is drawn into the mystery himself. The result is the book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which prompted the movie of shortened title, Philomena. (As the different titles hint, the book emphasizes the son’s post-adoption life, whereas the movie is devoted more to the mother and her quest.)
Philomena is a detective story, to be sure. Like Martin, filmgoers are also quickly caught up in the mystery, from its starting point at an Irish convent.
There is comedy as well, for the low-key Martin (Steve Coogan), an outspoken atheist, is undone by the unabashed simplicity of the still-devout Philomena who often leaves him muttering and sputtering. Eventually each “gets” the other. At one profound moment, Martin buys Philomena a little Jesus statuette, an act of supreme acceptance—not of her faith, of course, but of her. A little gesture, it looms large.
I can’t say more, without spoiling the mystery. Let me just promise that everyone will be moved by Philomena—and rewarded. That is especially so for the freethinker who is inspired to rise above mere atheism to become a secular humanist; that is (as I frequently define one) an atheist with a heart.
Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)