Judi Dench’s performance in Philomena is a marvel of restraint and, because of that elegance of craft and common sense, powerfully moving. Dench celebrated her 79th birthday just after the shoot and this film afforded her a suitably challenging star turn for proving that she was not resting on any industry laurels or old tricks. She is arresting in every scene, a prima ballerina assoluta partnered ably by Steve Coogan, who also produced and co-adapted the screenplay (with Jeff Pope—they were nominated for an Oscar and won the BAFTA) and director Stephen Frears. The creative team know whom they have to showcase and do so with aplomb. For all that, it is not a showy role. Those who have known Dench primarily for her roles as monarchs, clever sophisticates, Shakespearean heroines, or for her comedy, will find no trace of imperiousness or drollery here. Based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who wants to find the out-of-wedlock son she was forced to give up for adoption more than fifty years ago, the film is among other things a rare study of the inherent irony in modesty enabling both hypocrisy and forgiveness.
As Martin Sixsmith, the former BBC correspondent who at first rather reluctantly takes up Philomena’s “human interest story”, Coogan continued his successful expansion from comic performer to producer, writer, and straight actor; his smooth, worldly cynicism as the journalist helps provide some of the dramatic counterpoint that takes us deeper into their quest for the long-lost son and into Philomena herself. Frears, always an actor’s director, proves again, as he did in his work with Helen Mirren in The Queen and with Meryl Streep in last year’s Florence Foster Jenkins, that he knows when to let the very best ones shape a scene with their characteristic instincts and technique and when to construct a framing that offers less expected insights into a character or situation. The film has many aspects—quest, road picture, quirky pairing, examination of personal and institutional morality—and Frears elegantly balances what might have been jarring elements and tones and weaves them into a novelistic exploration in which the arc of discovery never falters. His use of close-ups of Philomena—almost all unhurried, quiet, inward—escalates in the course of the film, and it is another testament to his daring and skill, and to Dench’s particular talent in finding and evincing the potency of common, unfussy, humanity, that there is absolutely no redundancy; each brings one more subtle and significant layer of development.
Dench infuses a lifetime of artistry, skill, and personality into her laser-specific portrayal of a simple, straightforward, self-effacing, kindhearted woman whose quiet strength has remarkable dignity and a sort of heroism that would most often go not only unsung but unnoticed. Philomena could so easily have been superficial and schmaltzy; instead, Coogan’s deft treatment of Sixmsith’s 2009 book and Frears’s intuitive and delicate direction afford a resonant context for one of the most eloquent performances of Judi Dench’s career.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Blu-ray, Amazon, Netflix DVD and streaming, and other select streaming sites)