Dame Judi Dench (“Skyfall”) has played a domineering English queen, the cool director of a massive security agency, a headstrong aristocrat and a vindictive teacher. Dench is no-nonsense, her characters unforgiving, and that’s what sets her apart. However, the Dame is too talented to be typecast as every feminist’s badass dream woman, which she shows by playing a sweet old lady in “Philomena.”
Dench is Philomena Lee, a simple Irish nurse quietly atoning for her sin of broken chastity 50 years later. As a teenager, Philomena had a roll in the hay with a boy at the county fair, and because of her subsequent pregnancy, her parents threw her into an abbey. There, the nuns help her give birth and then brusquely put her to work for four years, only allowing her and the other “women of questionable morals” to see their children for an hour a day. One somber July day, Phil watches from an upstairs window as a wealthy America family adopts her son Anthony and drives away from her without a goodbye.
There can be a distinction between the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith. Little old ladies praying that their hip replacements are a successful contradiction to the pompous preaching of a far away cathedral in Rome. Inflexible nuns belatedly teach abstinence to unwed mothers. The institution spends years changing the words to the “Hail Mary” as parish priests try desperately to feed the hungry. “Philomena” examines these themes as Phil enlists Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, “Despicable Me 2”), a befallen and cynical journalist, to help her find her son, now 50.
The film excels in establishing their relationship, comically juxtaposing Martin’s cranky modernity with Philomena’s amiable simplicity. Much of the comedy comes from Dench’s creation of Philomena as that sweet old lady everyone knows: the one who offers toffees in the car, who doesn’t understand puns and kindheartedly tries to connect with her Mexican waiter by expressing her love of tacos.
Do not mistake Philomena as just a caricature. Through her soulful eyes and deliberate movements, Dench instills in her a quiet pain: Her voice never rises to a yell, and even when she breaks down, her dignity stays intact. Religion stays an important theme as Phil goes head-to-head with Martin, facing off his rants about God and the Pope with her ferocious faith. The dichotomy between the two of them can at times come off as too strong — a studied depiction of new vs. old — but the excellent acting by both Dench and Coogan ensures that Phil and Martin are fully developed.
The film, based on a true story, only falters in its storytelling devices. Gray-lit flashbacks show Phil’s loss; the camera focuses two inches from her face to show the single tear dripping down her cheek. Dench narrates these flashbacks herself, and her dainty brogue negates from the severity of the situation. The story itself is dramatic, but every time the film dips into melodrama, Philomena loses some of her authenticity. The music detracts from the story as well, playing the frenzied tones of a murder mystery. It simply doesn’t match the story’s nuanced examination of a woman torn apart but still full of forgiveness.
“Philomena” delicately portrays a woman already in the twilight of her life, who still yearns to change her past. Phil isn’t brilliant, she isn’t educated or witty, not even particularly perceptive. Phil is simply a woman conflicted between what was taken from her and the faith that has remained throughout her entire life. Dench seems to go in a softer direction with “Philomena,” but Phil is possibly her most badass character yet: a forgiving woman with dignity and grace, one who doesn’t pretend to be someone she is not.