Catholic hypocrisy runs rampant in Philomena

For a seemingly middle-of-the-road melodrama Philomena doesn’t pull any punches. Philomena Lee’s story is a true heartbreaking tale one of yet another repugnant abuse by the Catholic Church. (And that’s saying a lot.)

An orphan from a young age she grew up in a Catholic convent school in Ireland after the Second World War. After leaving the school at 18 and having a healthy bout of teenage sex she finds herself pregnant and is sent to the nuns at Roscrea. As punishment for her “sin” she isn’t offered any painkillers while in labour a horrifically painful breech birth. (Nothing more awkward than watching a woman give birth on the big screen with a theatre full of strangers.) The nuns take her baby away. She (along with the other teen moms) is allowed to see him for one hour each day in the convent’s adjoining nursery. The rest of her time is spent working in a laundromat atoning for her sins and earning her keep. If that isn’t terrible enough the nuns begin to adopt out the babies. One day she peeks out the window and sees a young couple loading her baby boy into the car. She never sees him again.

Fifty years pass and Philomena (Judi Dench) finds the courage to tell the story of her lost child to her daughter. Despite the harm the church has done to her she still keeps the faith and attends mass every week. A bit of movie-inspired serendipity then happens. The daughter crosses paths with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) a former journalist with the BBC who was recently fired from his job as a political adviser. He’s depressed and adrift and sees in Philomena a chance to write a human-interest tale that’ll get him back in the journalist game.

The cynical reporter and doddering old lady begin their investigation at the rural convent where Philomena gave birth. (Or was imprisoned to be more accurate.) The film can’t help itself and seeks to get some mileage out of the contrasted duo — he quotes T.S. Eliot she quotes romance novels; he’s into Russian history she’s enamoured with Big Mama’s House . It’s sort of funny and sort of laboured and stupid.

The two aren’t offered any help at the convent. (Those sinister nuns!) They’re told the records regarding her son’s adoption were lost in a fire. Some of the nuns from Philomena’s youth are still alive but refuse to talk. Martin digs further into the story and discovers that the convent was selling children to wealthy Americans. The pair flies to Washington and what they discover is unexpectedly welcome sad and tragic.

Dench does a typically fine job (the sort of role she can play in her sleep) and Coogan is perfect as the snarky world-weary journalist. There are a few goofy moments of the “old people say the darndest things” variety but the laughs are largely well earned and witty. Director Steven Frears ( The Queen High Fidelity ) puts it all together with a solid craftsman-like approach. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way either. The sole technical flourish in the film is used to devastating effect: Philomena’s flashbacks to her time in the convent are given a gauzy contrasted glow like old video. It makes the girls look that much younger and vulnerable. Coogan (who co-wrote the screenplay) and Frears steer the film carefully between saccharine and over-serious a welcome change from the typical slice-of-life weeper.

It’s not all great — the film could use more of Coogan’s humour and the pacing is slack. It’s somewhat maudlin obviously but so what. (Also key: your judgment as to the film’s success will largely depend on your reaction to religious hypocrisy. It drives me bananas.) The story is so honest and sad that when Frears piles on the footage of teen moms and babies you can’t help but feel crushed. It’s merciless in its condemnation of the convent and the Catholic Church and a narrow cruel set of values that saw young women punished for daring to have children out of wedlock. But it wisely doesn’t condescend to Philomena for why she continues to maintain and defend her faith despite having every reason not to.

Decide for yourself. I’m with Martin Sixsmith — some things are simply unforgivable.