English director Stephen Frears has cast a wide cinematic net, creating sparkling, well-constructed pictures that entertain even as they offer clear-eyed assessments. In "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988), Frears minutely observed the power ploys, seductions, and manipulations of the bored upper class of pre-revolutionary French aristocracy; in "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1985), written by Hanif Kureishi and an early entrant in quality gay cinema, Frears brought Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke into the same frame and, in the course of the film, the same bed (all while probing incisively into the delicate issue of race relations).
Two years later, Frears examined another gay couple, playwright Joe Orton (an early film role for Gary Oldman) and his lover Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina, in his second film role) in 1987s "Prick Up Your Ears." Then, picking up where the Alan Parker-directed "The Commitments" had left off, Frears completed the film adaptation of Roddy Doyle's books "Barrytown Trilogy" with "The Snapper" (1993) and "The Van" (1996), a sweet trio of comedies that explored the theme of family from multiple sides and perspectives. With "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," an intergenerational comedy of manners laced with lust, Frears re-teamed with Kureishi to explore sexual joy set against cultural uneasiness.
With his newest film, "Philomena," Frears repeats his modus operandi: Find a fascinating story that has something important to say about faith, family, power, and / or society, ensure that the screenplay does justice to any original source material, and then infuse the film version with verve, humor, and humanity. The book, in this case, is "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," the 2009 true-life account by Martin Sixsmith, which serves as an omnibus for many of the themes and subjects Frears has treated over the course of his career.
In 1952, Philomena Lee was an Irish teenager with little to no idea of the biological facts around sex and sexuality (rather like an American teenager in 2013 who happens to live in one of this country's zones of "abstinence-only" sex ed). Predictably enough, Philomena fell victim to the double standard of the time: A young man pursuing a healthy sexual outlet left her pregnant and "fallen." (In the film, the fatal first kiss is underscored with a rather heavy hand: The setting is a carnival, and Philomena is in the middle of eating a candy apple. The apple falls to the ground as lips lock. Fortunately, the film mostly maintains a more delicate touch after this early scene.)
Philomena, disowned by her father for the "shame" of her circumstances, found herself relegated to a convent, Sean Ross Abbey, in County Tipperary, where the nuns forced her to endure a life-threatening birth without pain medication and then trapped her in servitude while allowing her only one hour of contact each day with her son, Anthony. After a few years of this, Anthony was given up for adoption to a wealthy American couple, together with the daughter of one of Philomena's close friends. The fact that the Americans were at risk is not incidental: As it turns out, the convent was more or less running a baby mill and selling the children for "donations" of significant sums.
Sophie Kennedy Clark plays teen Philomena with charm and, in the shattering scene when her child is taken away, primal, gut- twisting grief. Fast-forward fifty years: Now Philomena, played by Dame Judith Dench, is a sweet older woman living with her daughter. A little unworldly, fond of romance novels, and unwaveringly dedicated to the church that had treated her so atrociously, Philomena nonetheless still harbors a hope of one day reconnecting with her son. Hers is an unshakeable faith, and not just in matters of religion; far from prudish, she's brightly optimistic about human nature and human beings.
Enter Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who wrote the screenplay together with Jeff Pope), a journalist and, until recently, functionary with Tony Blair's government. (The film is set around 2003.) Sixsmith is a bundle of the worst traits of the intellectual: Insensitive (it was a tone-deaf comment that got him sacked), superior, nit-picky for no constructive reason. But he's also extremely rational and unafraid of the Catholic Church; needing a good story to sell his editor, he sets about the task of reuniting mother and child.
The story turns into a road trip when Sixsmith realizes that the only way to get answers is to go to America. (The convent stonewalls all attempts at inquiry; references to records lost "in the great fire" turn out to be truthful, if you count a blaze in a field intended to eradicate incriminating evidence.) Eventually, it turns out that Philomena's son, now called Michael, has risen to a position of influence in the Republican Party, serving as general counsel for Reagan and Bush. But like his mother, devoutly Catholic, he has, at his core, a "shame" for which the establishment he so fervently services would condemn him.
The book delves deeply into Michael's life and career, and illuminates the effects his early life experiences had on his psyche and later choices. The film doesn't try to present those nuances here; instead, we got old home movies, and the occasional spoken hint, to show us a little of what his life has been like. Philomena acknowledges that Michael would never have had the life he did had he grown up in Ireland -- then again, who's to say that would have been a bad thing? Regret, loss, love, yearning, it's all served up here in a hot, messy stew that doesn't wish so much to offer answers, or even solace, as simply immerse us in a powerful story and let us ask our own questions. (There's a barely-there thread of surrogacy: Worried by an uncharacteristic bout of silence, Sixsmith poses as Philomena's son to get a skeptical hotel worker to open her door for him so he can check on her. Wisely, the film allows this undercurrent, as so many others, to tug gently here and there, but never artificially emphasizes it.)
Remarkably, "Philomena" provokes fury and outrage, but also supplies a balm in the form of truly gracious forgiveness. There are passages devoted to illustrating, in highly contrasting terms, the ways in which Philomena and Sixsmith counteract one another, but also fill in each other's gaps; he's effective and focused, if blunt, whereas she is diffuse, but generous of spirit. These stretches of the film are kept vital and vivid with a combination of humor, skilled direction, and -- most of all -- extraordinary performances, especially from Dench. The word "luminous" is trotted out all the time for actresses of a certain age; in this case, it's the only word that fits. Dench seems to carry a radiance with her that fills this film up with something so sweet and essential it can only be the very essence of motherhood.