‘Must see’ movie : Philomena

The names haven’t been changed in Philomena. It’s a true story and a remarkable one. In style, it’s a sedate tale of a woman’s search for the son who was taken from her many years before. But go beyond the manner of its telling and you find a story of cruelty and evil, of shocking acts committed under a veneer of civility and sanctity

Steve Coogan, who co-adapted the screenplay from the book by Martin Sixsmith, plays Sixsmith, a middle-aged political writer who finds himself at a career crossroads

A potential human interest story falls into his lap, and he decides to pursue it only because he’s at a loose end. He meets Philomena Lee, a woman of about 70 who’s kept a secret for 50 years: as a pregnant teenager in 1950s Ireland, she was forced to give her son up for adoption after giving birth to him in a Catholic abbey. As the soft-spoken, slightly frumpy Philomena, Dench delivers one of her most recessive, unprepossessing performances yet; her dashing silver-haired turn as James Bond’s “M” is thoroughly banished beneath a staid crown of mousy curls. But that signature brand of Dench tungsten glints through, as Philomena embarks on a search for her now-middle-aged son and debates the tenets of her faith with the sceptical journalist chronicling her journey.

The first stop in their search for the lost son is the convent. The new woman in charge, who wears a modern habit and an ingratiating manner, tells Philomena that she can’t help with her search, but she can help her with her suffering

This is good enough for Philomena, whose bone-deep probity makes her the least suspicious person on Earth. But Sixsmith, with his reporter’s nose for news, knows something is off. He doesn’t know what or exactly how, but he knows this isn’t right

As Martin and Philomena trundle along on a picaresque voyage that takes them from rural Ireland to Washington starting in 2004, his mordant asides - as often as not having to do with theology and organised religion - consistently fly over Philomena’s head

But the modest, provincial Philomena, whose steadfast faith Martin condescendingly equates with her taste for lowbrow romance novels, tends to get the last word. After delivering a flustered soliloquy on whether he believes in God, Martin turns the question to Philomena. “Do you?” he asks her. “Yes,” she says simply. Later, when Martin refers to something as “evil,” Philomena insists that she doesn’t like that word. “No, evil’s good, story-wise,” he reassures her

If Philomena’s devotion is admirable, the blind eye she turns to the nuns who took her child is less understandable, and Martin serves as a suitably outraged audience surrogate as he reacts to an appalling revelation midway through the film.

Nuns often get unfair treatment in popular culture, when in real life they do much good. But Philomena tells a true story, and the deeper it goes, the more appalling it becomes. The details will be best discovered during the movie, but in general terms, it’s difficult not to see the behavior of some of these nuns as downright evil

What’s particularly shocking is the ability of some of these women to see the unwed mothers in their charge as almost subhuman, as outside the realm of normal consideration. The result was an epic distortion of Christianity, with people lobbing first and second stones who had no business even getting near a rock

When Philomena and Martin arrive in Washington, the film takes on fascinating added meaning obliquely reminding the audience of an era when homosexuality was the stuff of closeted stigma, a time that may seem as antediluvian to some audience members as the shame of an unwed mother in the 1950s

During her lengthy screen and stage career, Dench has played plenty of very strong women, Mother Courage, Lady Macbeth, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I and M among them. Compared to such figures, her character here may seem a little bit of a lightweight: an eccentric old lady on a quest. However, when it comes to Dench’s most memorable roles, Philomena Lee ranks with the best of them – something that will surely be underlined when this year’s awards season comes round

At its core, this clever, wrenching, profound story underscores the tenacity of faith in the face of unfathomable cruelty. Evil may be good, story-wise. But virtue, at its most tested and tempered, is even better

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