Philomena

Philomena photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAn Irish woman spends decades searching for her son Anthony. As an 18 year old in the 1950s, Philomena was taken in by an Irish Catholic convent operated by Magdalene nuns. Their charity was to care for wayward girls the church considered “sinners.”  Many were unwed mothers sent away by families to keep their indiscretions private. For the first three years of his life, Philomena got to see her baby for one hour a day in the midst of doing backbreaking laundry chores. Her son born out of wedlock was ultimately removed and sold into adoption overseas.

Writer-producer-star Steve Coogan co-adapted the screenplay from Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. He portrays the journalist of the story. Much of the film details the intricate relationship amongst the godless Irish writer and the distraught god-fearing mother. They’re certainly a peculiar team in which actors Judi Dench and Steve Coogan form a mismatched pair . Although both are in pursuit of the same goal, each represents wildly conflicting ideals. One second Martin is decrying the existence of God, the next Philomena is lighting a candle in a chapel. Yes their differences are sometimes emphasized awkwardly. Subtlety is not the script’s strong suit. The saving grace is Judi Dench’s performance which never makes her an object of derision, despite the screenplay’s occasional attempts to label her as such. Philomena endures as a model of decency and compassion. It’s hard not to gravitate toward her personality in her dealings with Martin, the disgraced reporter assigned to (horror!) a human interest story.

The chronicle works best as a warmhearted rumination of a woman’s journey to find her son. The dialogue isn’t particularly deep. The odd couple pairing of devout mother Philomena with atheist journalist Martin Sixsmith forms much of the plot. This is a drama of human interaction between two polar opposites. In their conversations, there are times when Philomena is portrayed as naïve and Martin as enlightened. The script manages to impugn the Catholic church (easy target) of 1950s Ireland as well as the Republican party (even easier target) of the 1980s. However The Magdalene Sisters is a vehement attack. Philomena is more good-natured and sweet in its tale. Thank Judi Dench for her dignified, sensitive portrayal. At one point she rebukes Martin for his lack of faith and forgiveness. At that moment she is the character with which we most identify. View the narrative as a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children. Throughout it all Philomena remains a staunch supporter of Catholicism. This picture may be a manipulative crowd-pleaser. But it’s also an emotional tear-jerking family drama with captivating flashes of anger, sorrow, humor and poignancy. Judi Dench makes the concoction pleasant.

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12 Responses to “Philomena”

  1. I didn’t quite like this one as much, but apparently, it seems like I’m in the very small minority. However, I will give praise to both Coogan and Dench for doing something with these characters and finding a way to make them interesting at every turn. Good review Mark.

    • I read your review. There’s a lot of ways one can approach this film. Yes I agree it is one-sided because it is about Philomena and Martin only, and not the nuns. However what I came away with is Judi Dench’s character. She is a model of forgiveness. Steve Coogan represents the anger, but it was her character that made an impression.

  2. Judi Dench is such a great actress. I’ve always seen her as a strong tough woman. This is one case where she plays a sweet, loving mother. Her emotion is felt with just a look on her face. Brilliant. Not her best movie , but I loved it. 4 stars.

  3. Good review! I look forward to this one!

  4. Hmm. This actually sounds like one I might go see, with my grandmother. The UK, the Catholic Church, Judi Dench–it sounds completely like her kind of movie.

    • Some critics have found the way it presents the Catholic church offensive, so it might depend on how she views the film. I saw Philomena and her unwavering faith as the focus, but Martin Sixsmith was representing the other side of things.

  5. I tend to like opposites playing off each other in film, although I’m a bit disappointed to hear that so much of this movie is just about that dynamic. Judi Dench is brilliant. I’m not surprised to hear that she anchors the film and acts as the most sympathetic character, even though she has great reasons to be angry with the Catholic Church. Steve Coogan can be entertaining sometimes, however I often find that many of the characters he plays are unlikable asses. The most recent example I can think of was his father figure in What Maisie Knew. I truly hated that guy. He sounds easier to relate to in Philomena, while still maintaining an air of assy-ness. Looking forward to checking this film out at some point in the near future.

    • Steve Coogan is sympathetic to Philomena so he is likeable. How you embrace his character as a whole will probably depend on your point of view. He’s an atheist full of righteous indignation.

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