© 2013 Ray Wong

Based on Martin Sixsmith’s article “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” Philomena is a “human interest story” that touches on many serious themes including the taboo subjects of religion and the Catholic church. Ultimately, it’s the story of one woman’s redemption and forgiveness, and a man’s journey to rediscover himself.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a high-profile journalist who has just been fired from his high-profile public job. Not knowing what to do with himself, he gets a lead on a “human interest story” that at first he thinks is beneath him. But the subject matter, and the main character of the story, Philomena, intrigues him. With a little encouragement from his editor, he decides to take on the project.

It turns out that Philomena (Judi Dench), has been keeping a secret for 50 years. As a teenager, Philomena was taken in by the sisters of Rosecrea after her parents had abandoned her. Unfortunately, Philomena “sinned” with a man and became pregnant. Eventually the convent adopted her young son Anthony to a couple and Philomena never saw Anthony again. Now she wants to find out what happened to Anthony. Martin agrees to help her find Anthony in exchange for her story.

Martin finds out that Anthony was adopted by an American couple, and their research leads him and Philomena to America. Through their journey, Martin comes to know more about Philomena and regards her as a kind but naive, ignorant simpleton. Philomena thinks of Martin as rude, snobbish and opportunistic. And yet the story of her son binds them together. Martin tracks down Anthony, who was renamed as Michael, became a lawyer and worked at the White House. But the truth about Anthony/Michael soon devastates Philomena.

Judi Dench (Skyfall) is of course amazing as Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark plays the younger version). She dominates the movie in every scene she is in. Through her, we experience the agony, guilt and shame of a mother who is the victim of her faith and circumstances. We come to care about Philomena deeply, in part because of her heart-wrenching story, but in part because of Dench’s soulful performance.

I have never been a fan of Steve Coogan (Ruby Sparks) until now. As Martin Sixsmith, Coogan exudes this seriousness of a man who is confused about his life. Certainly Coogan’s sense of humor is still evident in his characterization, but his restrained and refined performance is rather unexpected. And he more than holds his own against the sublime Judi Dench.

The supporting cast is solid. Special mention to Barbara Jefford (The Deep Blue Sea) as Sister Hildergarde, a misguided soul whom we can’t quite sure whether to hate or pity. Sean Mahon (Dark Shadows) plays Philomena’s adult son in mostly flashbacks, and Peter Herman (Trouble with the Curve) is affecting as a key person in Anthony’s life.

Co-written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (The Security Men), the script stays rather true to the article and true events, but in a cinematic format of course. The plot unfolds gradually and naturally. It also focuses on the characterization and relationship of Philomena and Sixsmith — it is as much a story about Philomena and the journalist who is doing this for his own gain. While the screenplay does falter at times with pacing problems, these flaws are minor compared to the careful characterization, the deliberate mystery, and how the relationships are developed so naturally.

The direction of Stephen Frears (The Queen) is also solid. There is calm in Frears’ direction that stabilizes the rather frazzled nature of Philomena’s and Sixsmith’s journey. Frears walks a fine line in dealing with the emotional material, often successfully avoiding the melodramatic nature of such deeply tragic stories. Specifically, Frears lets the production fall away so we can focus on the characters.

As it turns out, Philomena  is a deeply moving and interesting story about many things: motherhood, guilt, religion (i.e. the Catholic faith), ambition, reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption. More important, it is a love story. It is a story about the love between a mother and her child, the love between two complete strangers, and the love for the truth. 

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Peter Herman, Sean Mahon
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (based on article by Martin Sixsmith)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, thematic materials and sexual preferences
Running Time: 98 minutes


Script - 8
Performance - 9
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0