In the holiday season a weird combination of cinema circumstances usually prevails. On the one hand, the studios release a number of pictures aimed at children, Christmas movies full of good cheer, complete with cute animals and elves, just the thing for bored kids and desperate parents, along with blockbusters for the older crowd. Believing, with some justification, that the Motion Picture Academy voters have short memories, they also tend to deploy works of high seriousness, in hopes that films opening near the year's end have a better chance of winning at least a nomination for an Oscar.
Regardless of that history and context, one of the legitimate contenders for an award, already garlanded with several prizes, is of all things, a small, unpretentious, independent British film, "Philomena." Despite its essentially distressing subject and simple, straightforward plot, the picture, based on a true story, achieves a pleasing complexity of manner and matter.
The central situation leads to the association of two very different people with two very different contexts, who each come to know and understand one another. The title character, played by Judi Dench, resolves to find the son who was taken from her as a little boy some 50 years ago. Her memories involve a now-familiar incident, the virtual imprisonment of pregnant Irish girls by an order of nuns, who assist unmarried young women in giving birth, keep their children in a nursery, and force the women to work off their debt in menial labor at the convent.
In a series of flashbacks throughout the movie, Philomena recalls her past; her seduction, pregnancy, her painful labor, her harsh treatment in the convent. Most of all, she remembers her love for her beautiful son, Anthony, and her heartbreaking loss when he was taken from her, adopted by some wealthy couple.
Through some coincidental connections, Philomena meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist who's lost his job for sending some inappropriate tweet. Although he's an experienced political reporter who's worked in Moscow and Washington, he now needs work, and finds he must write a human interest story for one of those awful English tabloids. The emotional impact of Philomena's history, coupled with the context of what his editor calls "evil nuns," promises success for Martin and the newspaper.
Martin's experience helps him track down some clues to Anthony's life after his adoption. He and Philomena travel to America, where, after a number of setbacks and dead ends, they learn some surprising truths about her son and, in the process, learn a great deal about each other. The ironic, wised-up journalist discovers a surprising depth of character in the woman he had regarded as sentimental and naïve; the two of them establish a genuine relationship, in a way finding each other in the course of their quest.
Essentially a two-person movie, "Philomena" demonstrates once again the impressive talents of Judi Dench, who simply inhabits her character in one of the most natural and convincing performances of her distinguished career. She displays an astonishing variety of emotions in her speech and behavior, but mostly in the expressions of her worn countenance, suggesting pain and grief, but also innocence and humor, the face of a fully credible human being.
As Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan responds well to the formidable presence of the older, more famous, and honored actor. Detached, occasionally resistant, even hostile to the old woman's quest, he eventually joins wholeheartedly in the search, becoming in some small way the son she's lost. He plays his part with a great deal of restraint and considerable wit, as fine a performance in its way as his counterpart's.
The movie complicates its simple plot with a nicely delicate use of flashbacks, played as home movies that represent Philomena's memories and even her fantasies of her son's life. It occasionally exhibits some uncertainty in the motivations and behaviors of some of its secondary characters, and now and then cries out for a bit more explanation of its events. Its wide and deep range of emotion, however, exerts an enormous appeal, despite its subject, considerable humor, and charm. The performances of the two principals are as good as any in any movie of this year.