“I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that sooner or later the world is going to break your heart.”

— Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The world knows that the Irish can forgive, but they never forget. And that’s the way it was with Philomena,(the great Judi Dench) a retired Irish nurse who, as a young girl in a convent school, went wandering to a fair, and fell into the deep blue eyes of an Irish boy with more sweetness in his words than the candy apple he bought her. “It wasn’t about love,” she says later in the movie, “it was lust, and it was just wonderful.”

But there came to be that the seed was planted, and a baby boy was born in Rosecrea Abbey, a Catholic girls’ home for the unwed. The girls were given daily time, after their prison-like duties in steaming laundry rooms, to spend with their children, before childless couples from other countries came, and with a “generous donation” to the church, adopted the babies and made away with them.

The first stab at our hearts comes when director Stephen Frears puts his camera at a barred window, when the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) rushes to it to see her young Michael being driven away with a wealthy American couple. Don’t pocket the moment too quickly, there are more, greater pains to come.

But now, as we meet Philomena, she has come to a moment where memories alone will no longer warm her heart. She needs, after all, to go and find what happened to her Michael. She confesses to her grown daughter, (Charlie Murphy) who, at a cocktail party meets and enlists the help of a defrocked BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, (Steve Coogan) who was unjustly dumped for a quote he never made.

Sixsmith, who later wrote the book of Philomena’s journey, reluctantly agrees to hear her out. A cynical and bitter man, an ex-Catholic and now trashed writer, gets his old boss to finance the search. “It has to have either a happy ending or a tragic one,” she says.

So begins a journey to the heart of darkness where Philomena has spent her lifetime. In this sweet and sour buddy movie, the soured reporter and the little Irish woman go forth, to the old Abbey where secrets surface and shock, where ancient love and ugly religious venom commingle beneath black robes. Then on to America to check records in Washington, D.C. Here in the halls outside the Oval Office, they discover the truth, and the truth sets them free to go deeper into the mystery of missing Michael.

It’s at this point, should you see the film, that it’s important that you keep to yourself what is revealed. The story, a true one, is so full of small turns and huge discoveries, that to give even one away would ruin the many surprises for others.

Judi Dench, one of Britain’s finest, if not greatest actors, has hands much to tiny to hold our hearts in them, but hold she does, and at every turn, every door that opens, we fear she will drop them. Dench has been Queen Elizabeth and James Bond’s boss. She has taken us to India as a retired lady, and been hissed as J.Edgar Hoover’s mother. She is Judie Dench, and it’s only right that we must stand as she passes.

Coogan, as Sixsmith, is a deft actor with a touch as light as smoke. Reluctant at first and immune to Philomena’s sweet honesty, his basic passion for truth is aroused again when faced with those who would hide it.

“Philomena” in a surprise ending, reminds us that to forgive is indeed divine, but to forget is tragic.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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