A film review by Craig J. Koban January 10, 2014 

RANK: #21


2013, PG-13, 94 mins.


Judi Dench as Philomena Lee  /  Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith  /  Michelle Fairley as Sally Mitchell  /  Mare Winningham as Mary  /  Charlie Murph as Kathleen  /  Simone Lahbib as Kate Sixsmith  /  Sophie Kennedy Clark as Young Philomena  /  Charles Edwards as David  /  Sean Mahon as Michael Hess

Directed by Stephen Frears  /  Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

“I’d like to know what he thought of me.” 

So says Philomena Lee in the film PHILOMENA, based on the heart-wrenching true tale of a devout Catholic Irish woman’s five decade ordeal to find her son that she essentially had taken away from her in a forced adoption while she was an indentured servant in her teens at the Roscrea convent.  The book that influenced the film, Martin Sexsmith’s THE LOST CHILD OF PHILOMENA LEE, inspired co-writer and co-producer Steve Coogan to bring this tear-inducing story of personal strife and regret to the silver screen.  The intrinsically wonderful thing about PHILOMENA is that it has the façade of a dime-a-dozen manipulative Hollywood melodrama and then very quickly subverts our expectations by becoming something richer, more complex, and raw in its honesty.  The way the film absconds away from obtrusive genre clichés is ultimately refreshing. 

If anything, the tale of Philomena Lee is one of both damning tragedy, but ultimately soulful redemption.  Coogan’s script (in collaboration with Jeff Pope) very shrewdly and dexterously segues between multiple tones: It’s both a odd couple/buddy road comedy, a highly intriguing and immersive globe trotting mystery, and a condemnation of the Catholic Church, whose very hypocrisy allowed for the shameful injustice to happen to Philomena in the first place.  In lesser hands, the film’s amusing elements would have stilted the drama, but director Stephen Frears is a dependable and more than capable filmmaking veteran to not allow for this to happen.  He directs Philomena’s story with the utmost delicacy and discretion while, at the same time, getting yet another superlative Oscar caliber performance out of star Judi Dench, whom he previously directed in MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS. 

Frears and Coogan make exemplary usage of well-patterned flashbacks to ground us in the particulars of Philomena's predicament.  The young Philomena became pregnant and was thusly disowned by her staunchly religious Irish family in the 1950’s, which led to her being placed in a convent.  Her time there could hardly be described as nurturing or caring, as she was reduced to being a slave to the nuns’ wishes in a form of (in their minds) atonement for her pre-marital sex sin against God.  After she gives birth to her son, Anthony, Philomena is forced to sign away parental rights to the child.  Rather shockingly, the convent secretly sells the child to a wealthy American couple, leaving Philomena a distraught mess. 



The film then flashforwards 50 years as we meet the elderly Philomena (Dench), still crestfallen after all of these years as to her lost baby boy.  She confides in her daughter her hellish story, after which time she reveals it to a recently sacked Martin Sexsmith (Coogan), a rather uptight, elitist, an Oxford educated political advisor/journalist that is now forced to take on human interest stories (which he loathes and thinks are beneath him) in order to make end’s meet.  A meeting between Sexsmith and Philomena occurs, and the writer’s intrigue begins to grab a hold of him, especially when the more juicer details of Philomena’s past begin to surface.  Clues begin to reveal themselves and point out to Philomena’s son being a high-ranking politician in Washington, which leads Sexsmith and Philomena on an ocean-spanning trek to America.  Unfortunately, when some rather distressing news regarding the whereabouts of her son comes to light, it forces the pair to begin their investigation all over again. 

It’s very hard to describe why PHILOMENA works so resoundingly well without given away key aspects of the plot (which, frankly, far too many other critics have in their reviews), other than to say that Philomena's and Sexsmith’s journey to discover the truth about her son takes many unexpected twists and turns; for those unfamiliar with the real story, just when you think you’ve figured everything out, the narrative throws a curveball at us to throw us off balance.  Perhaps even better is how the script has some fun along the way at the expense of the social class distinctions between Philomena and Sexsmith, not to mention their polar opposite views on faith (Sexsmith, many times in the film, establishes himself as a firm and unwavering atheist), which gives the film a whole added layer of complexity.  The astounding aspect of the film is how Philomena herself still manages to harbor a level of forgiveness for the nuns that wronged her, whereas Sexsmith can’t allow himself to share that view.  In his mind, why would God allow for such an injustice? 

The true emotional wallop in the film resides with the performances, and Coogan and Dench make for a highly unlikely, yet effective tandem together.  Coogan is perhaps better known for his comedic roles (he can broadly ham it up with the best of them, like in his parts in films like TROPIC THUNDER and HAMLET 2), but here he skillfully tones it all down to essentially play the straight man in the proceedings and allowing Philomena to get a lion’s share of the chuckles.  Dench’s performance is trickier than it may appear: She not only has to portray an elderly woman that’s both deeply wounded by decades of deep seeded emotional wounds, but also has to relay her as a rather shrewd – and oftentimes side-splittingly funny – judge of character.  The temptation by lesser actresses would have been, no doubt, to play Philomena as a broadly defined, kooky and tormented ol’ lady caricature, but Dench makes her so much more refined and well rendered.  She makes her Philomena a tiny cauldron of composure, inner strength and fortitude, especially considering the sad revelations brought to her during the course of the film.  Dench has never portrayed such an ordinary woman with such layers of extraordinary complexity.   

PHILOMENA has an ample amount to say about the Catholic Church’s criminal indiscretions, especially with the manner it tries to hide such indiscretions decades after they occur.  The manner that the film also manages to infuse into that the slow thawing of Sexsmith/Philomena’s initially icy relationship is kind of thankless, especially for how it avoids any sanctimoniously false conclusions (Sexsmith remains a non-believer even in the end, but manages to express more tolerance towards Philomena’s beliefs).  Some films might have been far too reserved and timid to approach the layered in religious subtext to the story and characters, but Coogan and Frears display an uninhibited tenacity with the material and don’t try to soft-pedal it for easier consumption. 

The film’s ending also packs a deeply melancholic, but uplifting sense of closure to Philomena’s journey without feeling like its methodically and mechanically tugging at audience heartstrings.  The film’s lack of overt manipulation is one of its strongest assets, which allows for PHILOMENA to hit its intended emotional beats with a quietly rendered, but surprisingly powerful authority. 

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