In Stephen Frears' heartfelt and moving Philomena, the most effective shots are among the simplest a filmmaker can employ: tight close-ups. In this case, the camera’s focus is on the furrowed, and inspiringly lived-in face of the great Judi Dench. Playing a woman who longs to discover the whereabouts of the son taken from her when she was a teenager, Dench gives the title character a strength and resolve that has gotten her through the fifty years since she last saw her son.
After the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meets a boy at a carnival in 1950s Ireland, she finds herself pregnant and held captive in an abbey where the nuns make the girls work in a laundry seven days a week. (The 2002 film The Magdalena Sisters masterfully covered this territory in detail.) The girls are all young and those who survive childbirth (several don’t, as the tiny cemetery on the grounds reveals) only get time with their children until they’re adopted and sold to more “appropriate” parents. Philomena’s Anthony is four when she watches in agony as he’s driven away. That they don’t get to say goodbye to each other is the punishment the nuns feel she deserves.
Fifty years later, a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the screenplay, produced the film, and gives a wonderful performance) has left the BBC but still wants to keep himself in the game. After hearing about Philomena from her adult daughter, he sees the human interest value in her story and takes up her cause. They visit the abbey (some of the same nuns are still there, including the most heartless, Sister Hildegarde) together to gather information but hear that the files were lost in a fire.
That fact only deters them slightly and soon they learn enough of the details – Anthony grew up as a Michael - to warrant a visit across the pond. The film from that point is rich with developments both comic and heartbreaking that unfold like clues in an intricate mystery. Because Philomena's and Martin's journey excavates these plot turns and twists with a deft hand, viewers should discover them as they unfold; that's part of the reason why the movie works so well. Plus its script is alternately fervently anti-church and gracefully spiritual.
The biggest delight is in watching Judi Dench grasp her character with a kind of benevolent death grip. In her long career as a nurse, Philomena learned much about humans and their various conditions, both medical and psychological. She's a shrewd judge of character, and doesn't suffer fools gladly, yet she's unembarrassed by her simplicity and lack of worldliness. Dench is brilliant as a woman who, despite her hardships and the cruel trick played on her by unforgiving nuns, is neither callous nor bitter. She can still revel in everything new she encounters.