Philomena (2013) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (based on the book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith)
Review published November 29, 2013
Philomena is inspired by the true story of an older Irish woman who is looking for the long-lost son that she gave birth to as a teenager in a Catholic convent, and whom was taken away from her into adoption when he was but three years old. Judi Dench (Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) plays the titular character, who is approached by a political adviser-turned-journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan, Despicable Me 2), looking to write a human interest story, with his publisher footing the bill for Philomena's journey to reunite with the young boy, now in his 50s, she never knew. With little help in terms of details afforded from the convent, they jaunt to the United States, where young boys were said to have gone into adoption, in order to pick up clues as to the son's current whereabouts. But they soon discover even more secrets along the way, which has both questioning things they were once certain of in life.
Though billed as a drama, the film is full of witty and genuinely funny moments, which work wonderfully to temper this otherwise sad story of one woman's ordeal as a teenager trying to cope in a very strict environment intolerant of sins of the flesh, with her son separated from her and no rights for her to ever find him again. Stephen Frears (The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents) is masterful in his direction of this delicate tale, bringing forth very strong performances, and another Oscar-caliber turn by the always commanding Judi Dench, who plays Philomena as simple in nature but strong in character. Much of the comic interplay comes through the interaction between the earthy, no-nonsense Philomena and the occasionally sarcastic, impertinent British journalist who initially just sees her as a means to an end in his career. It's fun just to watch these two characters trying to inhabit the same space, and how they try to manipulate each other in order to get what they want at any given time.
In addition to the search for her son, Philomena's journey is also a test of her faith and her ability to find forgiveness, not only to the people who may have wronged her in the past, but also for herself for the heavy burden she's been carrying her entire life for her youthful moment of indiscretion. But in the end, it's about fanciful stories and adventures, much like the rtales at the heart of Philomena's treasured romance novels -- she's always dreamt of better things for herself and her boy, and she finally goes off on her own adventure to learn one more fanciful story -- that of her long-separated son.
If there emerges criticism against the film, it may come from those of Catholic faith, particularly for how the nuns are portrayed in the film as the heavies. This is especially true during the film's climax between Philomena, Sixsmith, and the nuns in a scene that, in reality, never took place. It is also especially harsh toward one particular nun, who comes across as exceedingly judgmental and cruel in her obstruction to the end, but who in reality died many years before the events in the final scenes of this movie. As I usually feel compelled to say, when you see the words, "Inspired by a true story" at the beginning of a film, it's best to treat what follows as a work of fiction, despite knowing that some of what we see is based on certain facts.
Philomena, in addition to Frears' skillful direction, is bolstered by a rich screenplay by co-star Coogan, who also serves as producer, and writing partner Jeff Pope (Dirty Filthy Love, Exxex Boys). It's full of sorrow, joy, longing, redemption, and also scratches at deeper questions of faith and fulfillment, and how difficult the two are to coincide. It may seem a basic road-trip story, but it is splendidly developed into much, much more than a search for a solution to the mystery at the heart of the film's plot. Like Philomena herself, the film that is her namesake is simple in its manner, but underneath, it is full of wisdom, determination, and evocative reverie.
©2013 Vince Leo