Review: Judi Dench vs. the Evil Nuns of Doom

The perks of travelling with Dame Judi.
The perks of travelling with Dame Judi.

Few people have bothered to check out the excellent British drama Philomena. Of all the Oscar competitors, the Judi Dench vehicle has one of the smallest box office totals of the bunch. Sad, really, considering it packs an emotional punch others lack.

Philomena is based on a true story chronicled by former journalist and disgraced public servant Martin Sixsmith. An Irish woman (Dench) wants to find the son she gave in adoption fifty years ago. It wasn’t her choice. The nuns at the convent where she lived sold a number of kids to Americans for a thousand pounds each, without the mother’s consent (they were also into indentured servitude and let pregnant teenagers die in childbirth).

Enter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), down on his luck and lacking direction. With Sixsmith support, Philomena gets closer to the truth, which may not be as palatable as she would have liked it. In turn, Martin learns to appreciate the wisdom and kindness of the simple folk.

Coogan is key for the success of Philomena. His acerbic persona is put to good use in the film, in stark contrast with the plain spoken lead. The comedic actor also wrote the script, and while at times he underlines a point one too many times, keeps the twists and turns of the story emotionally charged. Coogan allows himself a cathartic moment towards the end that didn’t occur in real life, but at least I was claiming for.

As for the damning portrait of the Roscrea convent, there is no point questioning the truthfulness of the events surrounding Philomena Lee. The Irish Catholic Church’s attitude regarding teenage mothers during the 50’s is well documented. In fact, Philomena is mild comparing to the brutal, borderline unwatchable The Magdalene Sisters.

As movie-going experiences go, Philomena has to be among the most satisfying of this year: Judi Dench delivers a pitch perfect performance and Steve Coogan is quite pleasant when dialed down. Give this movie a chance.

Four prairie dogs nursing self-righteous anger.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.