Martin Sixsmith, the reporter at the center of Philomena, often criticizes “human interest” pieces as a lesser form of storytelling. He believes them to be too simple and saccharine. But Stephen Frears’ crowd-pleasing film ultimately makes a strong argument for the power of these particular stories of uplifting triumphs.
Philomena Lee grew up in a convent, where she birthed a son out of wedlock. While she worked in the laundry, the elder nurses took her child away from her and arranged for his adoption to an American family. For 50 years, Philomena searched for her long-lost boy, but it’s not until her adult daughter meets Martin, just after he’s been fired, that a mother-son reunion seems possible.
Martin at first has no interest in Philomena’s story, preferring to write hard-hitting political journalism, or maybe even start that Russian history book he’s been meaning to work on. But he eventually relents and teams up with Philomena to attempt to find her son. The sophisticated cynic and simple sweetheart travel the globe together, hunting down clues as to the boy’s whereabouts and slowly learning to appreciate each other’s perspective.
The rest of their journey should be seen rather than described, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised that the film, from a script by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan (who plays Martin opposite Judi Dench as Philomena) manages to pack in plenty of surprises to match every predictable beat. The film is essentially the same sort of human interest piece that Sixsmith decries, which just goes to show that with the right blend of humor, surprises, and genuine human emotions, even the simplest stories are worth telling.
Philomena opens today at the Ritz Five.