Movie review: 'Philomena' has bite, compassion and fine acting

For the News-DemocratNovember 29, 2013 

What It's About

"Philomena" aims straight for the heart, but this emotional story of an Irish-Catholic woman who seeks answers about the son she was forced to give up isn't softened.

Director Stephen Frears ("The Queen") lets this real story unfold in surprising ways, and the script, co-written by co-star Steve Coogan, has both bite and compassion.

On what would be her son's 50th birthday, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) reveals to her daughter that she had a child as an unwed teenager, and the convent where she stayed arranged an adoption when Anthony was a toddler. She never saw him again. Her broken heart needs to be consoled.

Her daughter gets the attention of a snooty journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who agrees to write a story, to help Philomena find him, with an editor initially planning to exploit the sensational aspects. Thus, this pair of opposites embarks on a rocky road trip that tests both of them.


Watching Judi Dench act is like watching Picasso paint or Mozart compose -- a thing of beauty. She is flawless as a devout woman whose strength and faith are admirable. She plays a common woman, a senior citizen with plenty of gumption, whose delight in hotel amenities and resolve about life's many curves, is engaging. This departure results in one of her very best portraits. Oscar winner for "Shakespeare in Love," and multiple nominee, she will again be a contender and would get my vote for the most outstanding female performance of the year.

Her character's optimism is matched by Sixsmith's pessimism. A cynical, arrogant sort who condescends often in Philomena's company, the former BBC reporter becomes a better human during this assignment. Steve Coogan ("Around the World in 80 Days"), a smarty-pants comedic actor whose reputation is stellar in his homeland but hasn't caught on here, is very strong. The two work well together, and their relationship is key to the film's success.

What Works

The film takes its time finding its rhythm, but once it does, the story grabs your heart. This is a more complex tale than one would gather from the film's cheery trailer, and it's equal parts comedy and drama. The convent nuns' actions, during a different era, will outrage. The film is adapted from Sixsmith's book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," and what transpired is not sugar-coated.

What Doesn't Work

The film points fingers at the Catholic Church hierarchy and isn't a fan of Republicans, so if you are sensitive to such criticism, you are warned.

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Director: Stephen Frears

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Length: 1:38

Rated: R for some language

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