First of all, I would like to apologize for my inclusion of this god awful poster. It makes this fairly adult film seem childish and silly. Now, Philomena isn’t all long faces and violins, but it is pretty sad and serious in the main, when you think of what happened. Because of the main character’s great outlook on life it becomes more bearable, but no less harrowing when you think about it, that’s for sure. Featuring great performances, interesting conflicts, a powerful story, and a perfect balance of humor and drama, Philomena was one of the biggest surprises of 2013 for me.
Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a sweet old Irish lady with a dark stain on her past. Despite living a pretty good life now, she has never forgotten her son that she had to give up for adoption. Because of her economic and social circumstances back in 1952, it was unavoidable. On his fiftieth birthday, she finally breaks down and tells others of what she has been keeping inside of her all this time. She teams up with the reluctant and out of work Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to track him down and find out what has become of him after all these years. Sixsmith is hesitant to work on a mere “human interest story,” but once he hears about the social injustice involved, he realizes this is an important story worth his time and energy.
The two of them delve right in, visiting the nuns at the convent where Philomena was living at the time. Through marvelously constructed flashbacks we see how the younger Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) became pregnant and was forced to work at the convent to pay them back for taking care of her after she was abandoned by her family. The nuns are absolutely no help whatsoever, and even try to talk Philomena out of listening to Sixsmith, who as a journalist is obviously trying to trick her. Regardless, Sixsmith continues to pursue the story and guesses that Philomena’s son was probably adopted by Americans, as that seems to be the nuns’ target audience. Next, the pair set off to America to discover where her son is now. The results are unexpectedly tragic, but Philomena is able to rise above the circumstances with amazing resilience. Sixsmith, though, is another story.
The two are quite different: Philomena with her Catholic upbringing is not harsh and bigoted but very understanding and positive, while Sixsmith is very cynical and world-weary, but not without warmth. They’re both good people and get along fairly well, they just hold some different beliefs and live their lives in different ways. There are traces of an unlikely team situation here, but it doesn’t become too cliche. At some points it seems the script goes out of its way to make sure we know that Sixsmith is annoyed with Philomena, but on the whole it’s not too much of a problem. I liked how they showed their different reactions to the truth at the end of the film; I thought it was very powerful in terms of their relationships, and also shows two different sides to the story.
Though Coogan has his role to play and does it well, while also co-writing the picture, Dame Judi Dench is really the heart and soul of this film. It’s somewhat of a different role for her here as she normally plays tougher (not really the best word) characters than Philomena. But Philomena is tough in her own way, living with a perceived sin for about fifty years, finally finding out what happens to her son after not having the courage to look for a long time, and ultimately being able to forgive the wrongs done to her. At times she can seem a bit naive, but then you remember what she has gone through and what she has lost, and then you realize it’s amazing that she has been able to stay as positive as she has. Not to mention she can be really funny at some points, and her Irish accent is pretty good too (even if it slips at times).
With fantastic performances and a touching story, Philomena successfully manages to avoid being overly emotionally manipulative (though it succumbs in a few places) and ends up being a very entertaining picture. It combines a lot of interesting issues without becoming too preachy, and the characters’ interactions are nice to see. I’m really glad Dench got nominated for best actress, and can now see why the film was nominated for best picture. While it is a smaller film and may be forgotten in the midst of bigger, more important movies, it’s still a good one and I’m glad to see that it wasn’t completely overlooked.
“I forgive you because I don’t want to remain angry.”
Long story short: 3/4
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