Philomena, 2013, UK/USA/France
Philomena is based on the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who had a son out of wedlock that was sold into adoption by the convent she was living in. Philomena and her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) get in touch with a former journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and he reluctantly agrees to help Philomena track down her son.
The film is about serious subject matter, but it manages to balance the heaviness with a great deal of comedy. Martin is an atheist and a white collar professional. Philomena is a devout Catholic and very blue collar. She’s gentle and endearingly naïve; he’s been hardened by the world. Much of the humour comes from their very different life perspectives, and Philomena’s delightful “fish out of water” experience during their journey. Martin and Philomena’s relationship is very touching, as Martin learns a lot from Philomena about life and tolerance.
Dench is amazing as Philomena. She portrays her with such quiet strength. I cannot imagine going through what Philomena did – and still having faith in God and the Catholic church. Coogan gives a very good performance, as well – and also takes on the role of the audience. When Philomena displays grace and forgiveness towards those who’ve done her wrong, Martin is rightfully angered – and the audience is too.
The nuns at the convent committed a terrible crime – not just to Philomena, but to thousands of other young, unwed mothers, and this story helps draw attention to something that I knew nothing about. But, while there have been attempts to paint the film as anti-Catholic, it very much isn’t. We must remember that, while the story is critical of the actions of the church in Ireland in the 1950s, the lead character (and the woman the character is based on) are both devout Catholics.
Philomena was an amazing surprise. I was expecting a fairly standard but touching drama, but I got so much more. Director Stephen Frears takes the film in many surprising directions, and it was so much more than I expected. It was a truly fantastic film. I do wish we’d learned a bit more about Philomena’s son (apparently the book focuses more on him), as I did feel that the film was a bit torn between Philomena’s story and her son’s story.
Philomena is a thought-provoking film about the power of kindness and forgiveness. It’s wonderful and I highly recommend it.