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December 12, 2013

Philomena movie poster

Philomena is a fine film that walks a tightrope of drama, faith and fact. Based on the 2009 nonficiton book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”  written by Martin Sixsmith the film juggles issues of faith and belief that would feel false if not true. Stephen Holden of NYT summed up the film correctly when he wrote:

In less confident hands, the film could have been a mawkish, rambling tear-jerker.

If this film weren’t based on a true story it would have been a bombardment of shameless tearjerker plot fodder. However, since it is grounded in realism you appreciate the tactfulness of the proceedings. There is a lot going on under the surface and that is deftly handled by Coogan and Dench.

Philomena centers around a young Irish girl who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is dropped off at a convent in 1952 Ireland. She is forced to endure four years of hard labor while cleaning clothes seven days a week. She sees her son for one hour a day and he is eventually adopted by a rich American family for 1,000 pounds. The convent keeps the money and she continues to clean without ever knowing what happened to her son.

She holds onto the secret for 50 years and finally tells her daughter about it. The daughter randomly meets Steve Coogan’s character and the human interest story begins. The poster and marketing make you believe it will be a charming journey of two polar opposites. However, their mission is bleak and the themes heavier than your standard road trip film.

Judi Dench makes Philomena open minded and independent yet still nails her small town upbringing. She is a devoted Catholic and often tells people they are “one in a millon.” She is no bumpkin but also tells a Mexican chef that “Mexico sounds great. Except for all the kidnappings.” The performance is a lot harder than it looks and if you watch this and Skyfall back to back you will be amazed at Dench’s acting range. She has to be independent but still from a small town. Staunch in some areas and open to other ideas. Here is a woman who was dealt a bad hand and decided to become a nurse. She helped others when injustice had been done to her. Then, she has to worry about the portion sizes in America.

Steve Coogan’s Blacksmith is self diagnosed as “mildly depressed” and floundering after he was fired from his job. He is considering writing a book about Russian history, can be deeply cynical and has little patience for religion. He takes the Philomena job out of necessity and slowly warms to the little lady he journeys with. The two eventually bond but he still has to endure stories of her books and desire to watch Big Momma’s House.

There are dramatic moments when the music swells and the tears flow. However, my favorite moments were in the minutia. It is interesting to watch as Coogan’s character is full of vitriol while the woman who lived through the ordeal is forgiving. The end of the film features Dench at her best as she confronts the wrongdoers. The moment is really surprising and Philomena shows an understanding beneath her love of hokey books.

Philomena walks a very fine line and it does so well. The themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and closure are juggled well and the film never feels black and white. I applaud the acting, writing and directing because in the wrong hands it could have become an excessive mess that cheapened the sad yet inspiring journey that Philomena Lee experienced.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2013 11:04 am

    I don’t know why, but I just did not like this movie. Something to me felt wrong about the tone and rather than just sticking with one straight idea, the movie sort of buggered off into all of thee different areas, without ever really coming together in a well-done way. I don’t know. I guess whatever problems I had, nobody else seemed to, so screw me, right? Good review.


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