Movie Review: Philomena (2013)

February 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I watched best picture nominee Philomena to prepare myself for the Oscars in a week or so, not knowing what the film was about other than it starred Judi Dench and thinking that it was probably going to be a long, boring drama I’d have to force myself to sit through. Instead, I laughed and I cried and was deeply moved by this true story about a mother’s lifelong search for the son she was forced to give up half a century ago. And it’s only 95 minutes long!

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Tamara Drewe), Philomena tells the true story of an elderly woman, Philomena Lee (Dench) who seeks out a jaded former journalist who just lost his job as a government adviser, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to help her track down her long lost son. Philomena had the child out of wedlock as a teenager and was sent to a convent by her father in disgrace before being forced to give up the child, who was believed to have been sent to the United States for adoption.

Far from boring, Philomena is essentially an investigative road trip movie as we follow Philomena and Sixsmith track down clues and follow leads in their efforts to track down the missing son. Apart from the intrigue of the amazing true story, the strength of the film lies in the two wonderfully developed main characters and the chemistry between them. Philomena is a determined, talkative woman who isn’t afraid to express her beliefs, while Sixsmith is characterised by his wry sense of humour and opinionated views. Together they make an odd couple who provide the audience with plenty of witty and amusing conversations.

And if you don’t know what happens at the end of their search then I would recommend avoiding all spoilers until you see the movie. I was impressed with the unexpected twists and turns in the storytelling, which, given that they really happened in real life, are both stunning and remarkable. I was particularly fascinated by the change in Sixsmith’s attitude as the adventure progressed, going from a position where he had little concern for the outcome other than how it would affect his article to becoming completely engrossed in the search, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Judi Dench received a best actress nomination for next month’s Oscars for her performance as Philomena, and rightly so. I was surprised that Coogan didn’t get a nod for his performance as Sixsmith, which was tonally perfect and balanced out Dench nicely, though he did get a nomination for co-adapting the screenplay. In fact, I was probably even more impressed with Coogan because my memory of him had been largely based on that crappy Jackie Chan movie Around the World in 80 Days.

Philomena is also an important film because it uncovers more atrocious — absolutely appalling — conduct on the part of the Catholic Church. I can’t say more without divulging spoilers so I’d recommend you check out the film, or if you don’t intend on doing so, to read the article that inspired it. I find it curious that some critics have slammed the movie for being yet another “anti-Catholic” film, but it’s not like the writers made all this shit up — it actually happened!

My only real complaint about Philomena is that the musical score occasionally stands out so much that it becomes obvious it’s trying to manipulate audiences into a stronger emotional response. It’s unnecessary because the story itself already packs a poignant punch, especially if you are a parent, like I am. I can’t even begin to imagine what the experience would be like for the real victims of the story. In the end, I don’t think Philomena would have been a best picture nominee back when they only had five slots, but in the age of nine nominees I think it’s reasonable that it has squeezed in. It’s a film that could have easily spiralled into a sappy melodrama, but thanks to the strong script and solid direction it has turned out to be quite an effective, satisfying drama.

4.25 stars out of 5