In an era when we prize the gritty and spend untold hours watching the exploits of our favorite antiheroes, “nice” has become a dangerous word; it suggests an obliviousness, some missing spark plug from the internal engine that makes riveting central figures run. Leave it to Judi Dench to remind you, in Philomena, that someone nice can be remarkably complex.
Her Philomena is a good-natured, small-town sort, but the very first time we see her, she’s mourning a child her family knows nothing about, instantly revealing her character’s secret depths. She agrees to let journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) investigate the whereabouts of her lost son, who was taken from her by nuns and later sold as a toddler to an American family. Simply agreeing to look for answers amid so many years of doubt is an act Dench renders bravely; Philomena’s yearning and fear are palpable opposing forces. Pitted against the brief, abstract flashbacks to the convent years that shaped her early life so harshly, her character’s kindness and optimism seem a nearly supernatural achievement. She’s not painted as particularly erudite—her preferred reading is potboiler standard—but amid circumstances that are often frustrating and sometimes tragic, Dench makes it clear that being nice is no easy task.
Of course, every hero needs a foil; enter Sixsmith. Sharply underplayed by Coogan, he’s half a character and half a proxy for the metropolitan elite: leery of human interest stories, an atheist and often utterly at a loss beside Philomena’s prim cheer. But despite Philomena occasionally acting like your blithe but cringe-inducing aunt—she chats merrily to hotel staff about what life must be like in Mexico—the script (by Coogan and Jeff Pope) doesn’t let him off the hook regarding his assumptions about her. As much as the search for her son informs the plot, Sixsmith’s growing respect for Philomena is the story’s most satisfying development. Her blasé reaction to the news her son Anthony was gay, despite her devout Catholicism, is one of many small surprises that force him to rethink his impressions, making him more attuned to her growing stress as the investigation continues.
They make a remarkable team, sharp-edged in their drama and fleet-footed in their comedy. One of the film’s most sustained laughs is on the back of an airline golf cart as Philomena describes one of her romance novels at length and Sixsmith silently fights the urge to leap from the moving vehicle to escape it. (Director Stephen Frears is smart enough to let them carry the scene just as long as it needs to be.) And they’re equally well-matched when they’re at odds, as Dench and Coogan craft a rapport both organically fond and conflicted.
Though the nuns’ villainy only gets more pronounced as the probe goes on, Frears favors quiet moments that illuminate his leads rather than seeking false satisfaction in uncovering the mystery. In some ways, this understated approach draws out the audience’s frustration even more than Philomena’s, so it’s handy to have Sixsmith as an audience proxy when it’s time to furiously interrogate people about the conveniently missing records of all children the convent adopted out from under their mothers. It also neatly parallels Sixsmith’s growing involvement in the story, which he takes on a lark but begins to make him question his reasons—and even the ethics of publishing so personal a story so studded with disappointments. His editor assures him repeatedly that the tragedy of Philomena finding her son’s grave would equal the joy of them blissfully reuniting; Coogan perfectly develops his reactions, charting a changing map of responses with each call.
It’s ironic that where the movie stumbles is in developing the very thing they’re looking for: Despite their search, we lack a sense of who Philomena’s son really was. Details of his life from Sixsmith’s 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, on which the movie is based, revealed a man every bit as complicated as his mother. He carried his own demons in parallel to his mother’s—and, in fact, confirmed some of her lifelong fears for him. The film shies away from the sadness of his life, giving us occasional Super 8 footage or truncated discussions with his adoptive sister Mary and his partner Pete, most of which highlight his desire to find his roots while skipping over any of the potential consequences. Dench’s eyes seem to water sometimes simply from wishing so hard for answers that aren’t coming.
Then again, maybe that’s the point. We know him so little because Philomena never can, and after it all, she’s asked to make peace with it. In a bittersweet story, it’s a bittersweet end that would seem impossible, except that Dame Judi has given us a Philomena more than up to the task.