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Philomena (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 30, 2023



Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon, Sean Mahon, Amy McAllister, Michelle Fairley, Wunmi Mosaku, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton and Kate Fleetwood.

Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope.

Directed by Stephen Frears.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox. 98 minutes. Rated PG-13.

One of the most difficult parts of filmmaking is precisely judging the tone to use in what is essentially a tragic story. If the movie turns on the emotional waterworks, the film will inevitably seem too mawkish. If the film tries to take the story with a comic bent, it opens itself up to changes of snarkiness. If it tries to keep a measured distance from the emotions on screen, the film will undoubtedly feel too clinical.

It's a tricky balancing act, one which Philomena pulls off nearly perfectly.

Which is even more impressive because it is based on a true story.

Despite a horribly sad back-story, Philomena is a surprisingly funny and ultimately life-affirming movie-going experience. All at once the movie is a funny odd-couple road comedy, an involving investigative look at some past transgressions of the Catholic church, a test of faith and forgiveness, an involving international mystery and an attempt for a reunion half a century in the making.

And yes, there are some absolutely heartbreaking parts as well, though Philomena does not overdo them. Co-writer (and star) Steve Coogan knows the power of the story, he does not feel the need to stack the deck.

Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an upbeat and simple Irish woman who has only one true regret in her life. As a naive young woman, she had a brief fling with a man she met at a fair which led to an unplanned pregnancy. She was sent to a nunnery where she (and many other unwed mothers) had to work hard labor in return for shelter and a doctor to help her give birth. After the baby was born, she was allowed just one hour with her child a day, until the boy was three and she had to watch helplessly as the nuns gave her son to a rich American couple for adoption.

Philomena ended up having a good life: moving to England, getting married, having a 30-year career as a nurse, having another daughter and becoming a loving grandmother. She never told anyone about her vanished son, convinced that the loss of the boy was her penance for her sin. However, though her faith was strong, she never completely came to terms with her penance and never, ever stopped wondering what happened to her boy. Finally, on his 50th birthday, Philomena confided her long, dark secret to her daughter.

Through her daughter, Philomena meets Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist who has just recently lost his government PR job in a very public fashion. Lost, bitter, disheartened and in the middle of a crisis of faith, Sixsmith is trying to figure out his next career move. Sixsmith realizes that Philomena's story would make for an interesting human-interest story, with which he could get his name back out there and get a foot back into journalism. Therefore, he agrees to help the old woman try to track down her long-lost son.

It seems like a somewhat simple storyline, but the above thumbnail sketch of the plot barely scratches the surface of the many ideas and conflicts which ground Philomena and turn it into a thoughtful (and often surprisingly funny) drama.

I won't delve too deeply into what Philomena and Sixsmith learn about her son – or even if they learn anything – because those twists and turns are better left a surprise. Besides, the voyage of discovery is, in many ways, even more important than the final destination.

I will say that the story does an interesting balancing job: while the Catholic church comes out looking a bit the bad guy here in the story, the film does not just lash out at religion. In fact, in many ways it is about the strength gained through faith, although the movie does try to differentiate between personal beliefs and organized religion. Philomena, who turns out to be arguably the strongest, most grounded person in the film, is that way because she clings to her beliefs.

Even though she has had a hard life and perhaps has been mistreated, she is able to find solace in her faith. In one scene, Sixsmith, a self-proclaimed atheist, lashes out at a nun for something that happened to Philomena years before. When Philomena asks him why he is getting so worked up, Sixsmith acknowledges that he is angry. Philomena looks at him sadly and says, "That must be exhausting."

And you know what? She's right. Philomena Lee has every right to be mad at the world, but she realizes that it won't change anything. It takes much more effort to be pissed off constantly than to just accept things and forgive.

Dench gives the woman a quiet strength, but she does all sorts of interesting things with the character, who is basically a good, kind woman who finds joy in little things in life, like hotel chocolates, romance novels and chain restaurants.

Coogan also plays Sixsmith with smart resolve. He is a cynical and somewhat angry young man, but he also has a strong well of decency and compassion right below the surface.

Philomena is probably a bit too modest and small (and too British) to likely win any major Oscars, but if Dench and Coogan are not nominated for the statuettes (Coogan not just for acting, but also for his screenplay with co-writer Jeff Pope) then there is no justice.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: November 21, 2013.

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