by: Eric J. Grimm



Directed by Stephen Frears – Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

It seems like films “inspired by a true story” are in no short supply this year. I get it. Real life is often stranger and more fascinating than fiction. That said, real life does not have much of a story arc, cinematic pace, or consistently punchy plot developments. I don’t want to undercut the fascinating story at the heart of Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, but I don’t see any reason why there needed to be a film adaptation, even though Judi Dench’s excellent performance and the film’s occasional lack of sentimentality slightly elevate the proceedings.


The tale of evil nuns who force poor Irish girls to work as indentured servants, after they’ve signed away their parental rights to fatherless children, kept me intrigued, even as Stephen Frears’ uninspired direction kept the film merely chugging along. The film gets in jabs at the Catholic Church and the United States Republican Party, but it also feels the need frequently to moralize. Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, plays disgraced journalist Sixsmith as a stock liberal cynic who gets schooled by his seemingly inferior elder. Sixsmith assists Philomena in her search for her long-lost son, though it’s clearly his journey to find his own humanity. The film wags its finger at him, proposing that it’s okay to be an atheist, but you must be Christ-like in your power to forgive. Because the film needs a tender resolution, Sixsmith and Philomena seem united in their effort to fairly tell the story, where a more powerful conclusion would have highlighted their difference in opinion over the outcome.


Ultimately, this is Dame Judi Dench’s show and she couldn’t deliver a lame performance if she tried. She always cries with equal parts relief and defeat and squeezes every ounce of possible charm out of her sexist and racist one-liners. Where June Squibb was shamelessly exploited in Nebraska, Dench pushes beyond clichés as if to demand acknowledgement for a character she has deemed worthy of portrayal. There’s a reason she’s acting royalty. She brightens, or darkens if appropriate, all of her material, no matter how shopworn. As her macular degeneration signals an impending conclusion to her incredible career, I can only hope that we will see her do at least one more film worthy of her presence.