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Wednesday, December 11,2013

The Roscrea redemption

Dench, Coogan anchor heartbreaking true story about a mother’s love

by Allan I. Ross
Where do you draw the line between soft and hard journalism in an age when Americans consider “The Daily Show” a bona fide news source even as “60 Minutes” offers an apology, but not a retraction, about its discredited eyewitness in Benghazi story? Knock the value of human interest pieces all you want, pal — you’re the one reading the Arts & Culture section. Are you not info-tained?

But that’s no way to start a glowing review — let’s ease into this one a little more gently, shall we?

The film “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, is intelligently comedic and heartwarmingly inspirational. It pulses with powerful performances and compelling themes — the guilt of religion, the ferocity of a mother’s love, the fear of being in the closet, the rapture of sex. It’s a deceptively complex affair.

Yes, it’s a human interest story, but one that comes loaded with double indictments. First, it exposes the hypocrisy of the Irish branch of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s, which is doggedly anti-premarital sex, yet provides no education — let alone protection — to these rural villagers, more or less setting up a rash of teenage pregnancies. Then, in an interesting parallel, the film also serves as powerful condemnation of a homophobic 1980s American political system and how its witch-hunt mentality drove many gay men into unsafe sexual practices, possibly spurring the AIDS epidemic.

And it was all blown open by a disgraced journalist's story about a plain-spoken Irish nurse who had a child out of wedlock in 1955. How’s that for fluff?

“Philomena” stars Coogan as the BBC journalist/government adviser Martin Sixsmith who was sacked and publicly shamed following a leaked memo micro-scandal. The film begins as he’s contemplating the next phase of his professional career and looking for a shot at redemption. When he happens across the story of 70-year-old Philomena Lee (Dench), who’s searching for the beloved son taken from her 50 years ago by the nuns at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roscrea, Ireland, he picks up the story on little more than a hunch. But it leads to an astoundingly complex journey with universal implications.

To hear that the Roman Catholic Church used poor, unwed mothers for slave labor in Ireland in the 1950s isn’t all that shocking. To find out that they stripped the young mothers of their children to put them up for adoption isn’t all that surprising. But to learn that the church actually sold the babies to Americans, kept the money, then staunchly stood between the mothers and children who longed to find each other — still stands, in fact, like an emotional paywall — is one of the most despicable abuses of power one can imagine.

Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) and co-written by Coogan, the film is as deliberately understated as its low-key title. What could easily have dissolved into a preachy, syrupy mess rises above any sense of entitlement and presents its characters as fully realized people.

“Philomena” is heartbreakingly human and worthy of your most urgent interest.

It’s based on Sixsmith’s book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” which focuses mainly on the life of the son she named Anthony, and only gets around to old Phil in the last 20 pages or so. Some of the really astonishing parts were omitted, probably to keep from blowing the audience’s minds. This, incredibly, leaves the possibility for a sequel — or “sidequel,” in Variety-speak — wide open and merited.

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