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For 50 years, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) has been haunted by the memories of the day her son Anthony was taken away from her and given, against her will, to an American family by the merciless nuns of a convent in County Tipperary, Ireland. She wonders, does Anthony still think of her and his homeland? Or has he forgotten? And what is he like today? Philomena Lee has kept that fateful day a secret for far too long but she now feels the time has come to tell everything to her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin).

Philomena was just one of thousands of young women who, for more than 30 years, provided the Irish Catholic Church with free, indentured labor while being harshly punished for their “sins” after their families sent them to these convents to “hide” their shame.

The story of this harsh, punitive system was magnificently told in Peter Mullan’s tough to watch but essential “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002). “Philomena,” Stephen Frears’ new film adapted from Martin Sixmith’s “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by actor/comedian Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, is a magnificent companion to Mullan’s film. Frears, Coogan and Pope pull no punches when it comes to depicting the sheer cruelty of this system; but this is also a film about redemption, forgiveness and faith.

While working as a server at a party, Jane overhears a conversation between Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) and some former colleagues. Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent in Moscow and Washington D.C., was hired by the Tony Blair administration as a spin doctor and then used as a scapegoat by the administration in a scandal that threatened to tarnish the Primer Minister’s image. Jane pitches Philomena’s story to Martin but he turns it down because he doesn’t do human interest stories. They are for “weak-minded, ignorant people,” he claims.

And yet, something about the story wakes up the old newshound in him. Martin agrees to do it, pitches it successfully to a magazine and is off to Ireland with Philomena to meet with the nuns at the convent. Philomena and Martin could be no more different: he is Oxbridge-educated, somewhat arrogant and a lapsed Catholic bordering on being an atheist; she is a devout Catholic who loves romantic novels and the smaller pleasures in life.

PHILOMENA

At the convent they are informed that all the old documents were conveniently lost during a fire and that, nevertheless, Philomena can’t do a thing since she signed a contract that prohibited her from finding out the whereabouts of her child. When Martin finds out from the owner of a local pub that the children were sold by the nuns to wealthy Irish American families, he makes a few calls to his contacts in Washington, D.C. and takes Philomena there. They find that Anthony’s name was changed to Michael by his adopted family and became a top legal counselor to the Reagan administration before facing the same kind of prejudice his mother faced after he came out of the closet and was diagnosed with AIDS; he died in 1995. The news doesn’t come as a shock to Philomena; in fact, she embraces the memory of her son and his accomplishments even more. However, additional revelations will lead them back to where the story started, to a confrontation that will test Martin’s sense of outrage and justice and Philomena’s faith.

“Philomena” could have easily turned into a maudlin, manipulative affair, the kind that reeks of Oscar bait. But the film achieves a delicate and subtle balance between drama and comedy thanks to Frears’ unintrusive direction, Coogan’s and Pope’s beautifully-written script and Dench’s and Coogan’s sublime performances. Coogan smartly underplays his part: yes, Martin may, at first sight, seem no different than the other smarmy characters so full of themselves Coogan has played in the past. But there is so much depth to his character that you cannot help but think that his use of irony is nothing more and nothing less than a defense mechanism. There is an actual learning curve for Martin. At the end, he is a much better man, he is in a much better place.

Dench is the real treat here. It’s so easy to take her for granted. We are so used to seeing Dench take on these grand dame, almost authoritarian roles that we overlook how perceptive and subtle an actress she is. In “Philomena” she delivers a performance so understated, so full of beauty, so poignant that you cannot help but fall in love with Philomena. Her soul may be in turmoil and her eyes may express a deep well of contradictory emotions but she also can see thru bullshit and call it out. She is a woman who comes to terms with her past and those who wronged her, a woman who has found peace and could teach the Catholic Church (or any Christian religion for that matter) a thing or two about forgiveness. In that regards, I can think of no better Christmas movie than “Philomena.”

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