Falling pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, young Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is sent to the convent of Roscrea to be treated as a "fallen woman". When her baby is only a toddler, he is whisked away by the nuns to America for adoption. Philomena spends the next 50 years searching for him in vain. In late middle age, Philomena (Judi Dench) meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a world-weary journalist as cynical as Philomena is trusting. Together they set off for America on a journey that reveals the extraordinary story of Philomena's son, as well as the powerful bond that grows between Philomena and Martin. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
The wonderful thing about Stephen Frears' Philomena is the tone. Based on Martin Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee about an elderly Irish woman's search for the out-of-wedlock son taken away from her years earlier, the topic is serious. But unlike Peter Mullin's hard-hitting 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters whose focus was the misguided Catholic faith that uses guilt, penance and abuse to punish the girls who were victims of rape or had had a child out of wedlock, the juxtaposition of Sixsmith's cynical, atheist viewpoint and dry sense of humour adds a different level of engagement. Frears manages the shifts in tone beautifully and never is the emotional ballast of the story jeopardised. The result is a substantial drama with comic elements that makes you cry when it counts and laugh when you least expect it. Steve Coogan and Judi Dench pitted against each other make it a winner.
Coogan and Jeff Pope's screenplay is dastardly clever. In a couple of brief scenes, we have been introduced to Sixsmith (Coogan) and are aware that the ex-BBC journalist has been fired from his high profile political spin doctor post, is in good health but is depressed and contemplates writing a book about Russian history. The rug is quickly pulled from under us as we realise that it is Judi Dench's character Philomena, who is the central focus of the story. It takes a while to get going but after some flashbacks that reveal Philomena's teenage indiscretion 50 years earlier, her 'human interest story' and quest to find her son, is presented to Sixsmith, who IS quickly endorsed by a media savvy editor Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley). The dialogue in which the story elements ('dead or alive; happy or sad') are canvassed is very funny.
The search begins and ends with a visit to Roscrea, the convent where Philomena paid her penance and from where her toddler son was taken away years ago in an expensive car. The scenes in flashback clearly establish the circumstances and the genuine bond and affection. As Philomena and Sixsmith head for Washington in search of her son, the film is propelled into another level. Interestingly the crux of the story is not about whether or not they find her son - this element is countered early on when Sixsmith's research brings a result. The key issue is what they find out, how the information is used and what happens next. I love the fact that a key clue is found on the glass of Guinness that Sixsmith is drinking in the hotel bar.
Coogan is in form and terrific, offering just the right amount of disdain and wry humour at appropriate moments. Dench is a great contrast as the simple woman who reads romance novels, goes to mass and has kept her faith through thick and thin. The depth of her emotions are shown in tight close up, when the deeply etched character lines in Dench's well known features reinforce the life of pain she has endured. The stunning fall cinematography as autumn's dress is showcased in all its splendour is gorgeous. These are especially pertinent in the sequences when Philomena and Sixsmith's roadtrip comes to its fruitful conclusion. But the film shines brightest with its sparring stars, who constantly surprise us - and each other.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
While it may be momentarily shocking to hear a news story of hundreds or even thousands of women searching for children that have been taken away from them, it is nothing compared to the power of a story of one mother and her child. Like Jim Loach's similarly themed 2010 Oranges and Sunshine did, Philomena tells the story through the prism of a particular character, one with whom we empathise, one who we can relate to and understand.
The script by Coogan and Pope (from Sixsmith's own memoir) is a wonderful balance of wry humour and powerful drama, woven together by sincere observation of the human condition - and a blasting admonition of the un-Christian Catholics involved. There is a scene where the ageing Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is confronted by Philomena and Sixsmith (Coogan); she defends her actions on the grounds that the anguish she helped cause Philomena was God's punishment... her atonement. I wish Philomena would have looked her in the eyes and suggested Sister Hildergarde leave the judging to God, just as she had called for about her own actions. It's at the heart of the story: tolerance.
Judi Dench is deeply moving as Philomena, trying to find her son 50 years after he was taken away from the convent to which she had been confined as a 'fallen woman' by her father. Her performance and the script enable us to understand why she has waited so long. She comes up with surprises, too, in beautifully crafted moments that feel absolutely authentic. Her faith is a central pillar of her character, too, which plays a striking, brittle contrast to the atheist Sixsmith - but not without humour.
(No surprise, then, that the article that attracted Coogan to the story in The Guardian was headlined 'The Catholic Church Sold My Child'.)
Coogan manages to convey his subtle journey from cynic to supporter with a sophisticated repertoire of emotional cues, delivering a satisfying character who becomes more than a facilitator. He ends up putting journalists in a positive light (without forgetting to empty the raid bar.)
As their joint journey unfolds, finding out about her son becomes a test of character and faith, a personal quest with broader implications and questions. Stephen Frears uses cinematic tools to convey emotions, memories and the past, with great skill. The screenplay takes us across hurdles and impassible walls, adding to the tension.
Frears has deep reservoirs of understanding about human nature - witness his stunning 1988 work Dangerous Liaisons or The Queen (2006). He teases out the best in his leads, full of complexity and shades of grief as well as joy. Hugely involving and totally satisfying, Philomena is a film for posterity.
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CAST: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Michelle Fairley, Mare Winningham, Anna Maxwell Martin, Simone Lahbib, Barbara Jefford, Charles Edwards, Charlie Murphy
PRODUCER: Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward, Gabrielle Tana
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
SCRIPT: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (book by Martin Sixsmith)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robbie Ryan
EDITOR: Valerio Bonelli
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Alan MacDonald
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2013