By Megan Bianco

In 1952 Ireland, an orphaned teenage girl named Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is living in a convent after her mother dies and her father abandons her. When she goes to a carnival one night, she meets a boy who likes her, and later becomes pregnant out of wedlock. After the nuns discover her condition, she is forced to become a laborer for them and give birth without medication or pain killers. When her baby boy turns three, he is sent away to a new family without her permission.

Fifty years later, Philomena (Judi Dench) is fully determined to find out where her son is and what life he leads, with the help of recently unemployed journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin has just been let go from his job as a government advisor and is considering taking up jogging and writing a book about Russian history. That is, until he meets Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) who pitches her mom’s story to him. Michelle Fairley plays the newspaper editor who encourages Martin to write the story, and Mare Winningham plays one of the grown-up babies sold from the convent who became the adopted sister of Philomena’s son.

There is much going on in Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” that make the audience ponder. Philomena was treated horribly by the Catholic Church, but never lost her faith or connection to Christianity. The journalist is a Catholic-turned-atheist engaged to a Catholic. There are some pretty awful nuns, as well as a couple of “very nice ones” (in the words of Philomena).

Coogan, usually a comic on camera, brings some charm into Philomena’s heavy story (which is remarkably based on a real woman named Philomena Lee) with co-screenwriter Jeff Pope. Coogan and Dench are paired together in an odd couple type of way, but create some more genuine awkwardness and charisma to play off each other, instead of the usual predictable gags.

Clark and Dench bring the title character to life effortlessly. While Dench has the more tender and bittersweet moments of the film, Clark’s performance is heartbreaking in the heaviest scenes in the movie. Her performance marks  the beginning of a new actress on the scene.

Philomena” is one of the most intellectual films of the past year. It is not a biased secular attack on Catholicism, but a must-watch for historic perspective. Those San Diegans who missed it in theaters now have a second opportunity to watch it on DVD at home. In an interview during the film’s press tour, the real Philomena stated that some sequences were fictionalized for dramatic effect, like most real-life based movies. But Frears, Coogan and Pope use her tale as a way to help viewers contemplate the separation of church and faith, and the abuses of power. As we saw last month, Dench deservedly gained her seventh Oscar nomination, and her fifth for Best Actress.

Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.