Monday, 10 February 2014

Philomena (2013) - ★★★★

Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Martin Sixsmith (book)
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Michelle Fairley

Philomena is one of my favourite films of 2013. In a year filled with many unoriginal and uninspiring stories, Philomena stands out with a truly emotional punch that hit me to the core. The touching screenplay made it such a beautiful film, as well as Judi Dench's stunning turn as a woman looking for the child that was taken away from her some fifty years ago. It really is one of the most moving performances I've ever seen. What surprised me about Philomena most is that it's an exquisitely crafted human interest story, with memorable cinematography and a soul-touching score by the great Alexandre Desplat. While some pan the film for being too "condemning" and not understanding enough of these nuns from 1950s Ireland, I thought Philomena said everything that needed to be said, and moved the audience more than the creators could ever have imagined.

We follow the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who as a teenager was forced to live in a convent after she fell pregnant. Her son Anthony was given up for adoption against Philomena's will. 50 years later, Philomena breaks her silence and wants to find her long lost son. This takes her on a journey with the shamed journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who is in need of a story to keep his career going. Together, they trace the steps to find Anthony. This isn't a story about hatred or bitterness. It is a story about a mother's undying love for her son, and the hope of reuniting with him.

I remember reading a review that harshly panned Philomena for being too biased against the nuns that took her child. Well we must have seen an entirely different film, because from what I saw in Philomena, it simply told the truth about what happened. For most of us with intelligence and brief knowledge about the history of the Catholic church, we already know that nuns and the Catholic belief back in the 1950s were very harsh and somewhat inhumane by today's standards. We also know that harsh penance against "sinners" was what the nuns were raised to believe and uphold, and that was acceptable in society back in their day. The movie didn't need to hold the audience's hand and explain this side of the story to us. If it had, the movie would be too long and dumbed down for the ignorant. Like I said, most intelligent people know the nun's side of the story. If telling the truth about Philomena's story is what some would call "condemnation" and "unfair" on the nuns, then that's their loss. No matter which point of view you look at, the nuns committed a terrible wrong to Philomena. 

In my opinion, this is the greatest performance of Judi Dench's illustrious career. She was philomenal I mean, phenomenal! There were many shades to Philomena that I just fell in love with. Her light-hearted, old-soul ways were such a joy to be around (such as when she tries to explain the plot of a silly romance novel to Martin). It was whenever she grieved, or thought about Anthony, that I felt such powerful emotions. Dench was indescribably masterful in her conveyance of love, hope, and despair. She made me cry more than once, because she was completely believable in this role. I would be very happy for Dench to pick up the Oscar for Best Actress this year. 

Steve Coogan gave a fine performance as a conceited and somewhat disheartened journalist. He doesn't believe in God, which created a fine contrast with Philomena's belief. At times he was impatient and insensitive, and at times he gave fine displays of caring towards Philomena. His greatest scene, in my opinion, was when he lost his cool at the nun responsible for tearing mother and child apart. I'm surprised at the lack of awards buzz he garnered, for he played such an important role in the film. Coogan played off Dench's whimsical and emotional qualities brilliantly, making this a film with nothing but perfect performances.

One of the most harrowing scenes in the film.

I don't believe this is a film that tries to manipulate feelings out of people. The story itself, and the exquisite performance of Dench, is enough to sustain a heavy emotional investment in all things to come. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece of cinema, or place it in my Top 10 films of 2013. However, there's something about Philomena that will stay with me forever. Perhaps it is that Judi Dench made me cry more than once, or perhaps it is the music from Desplat (which I've played over 40 times since downloading it). I've got a feeling that this is the kind of film that gets better with each viewing. It's just so effortlessly moving.


  1. I reviewed "Philomena" this week as well. I thought it was a good movie but I'm not sure if it's Oscar Best Picture nominee material. What did stand out were the two remarkable lead performances. I have a new respect for Coogan. There is more to him than just comedy.

    1. I don't think it was deserving of a nomination for Best Picture this year either, but it's certainly one of the best movies of 2013. Coogan and Dench were absolutely brilliant :)

  2. It may not be Best Picture material but it is a story that needed to be told. I can think of no better actors than Judi Dench and Steve Coogan to portray the sensitive and compelling story of this film. Excellent review Ben.

    1. I completely agree with you, you lovely anonymous person! :)