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Movie Review: Philomena

December 6, 2013

Philomena PosterPhilomena – An eOne Films Release

Release Date: November 29th, 2013

Rated PG for mature themes and language

Running time: 98 minutes

Stephen Frears (dir.)

Steve Coogan (screenplay)

Jeff Pope (screenplay)

Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith

Alexandre Desplat (music)

Judi Dench as Philomena

Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith

Sophie Kennedy Clark as Young Philomena

Mare Winningham as Mary

Barbara Jefford as Sister Hildegarde

Ruth McCabe as Mother Barbara

Peter Hermann as Pete Olsson

Sean Mahon as Michael

Anna Maxwell Martin as Jane

Simone Lahbib as Kate Sixsmith


©eOne Films.  All Rights Reserved.

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in Philomena.

Our reviews below:


Philomena Review By John C.

***1/2 (out of 4)

Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) has spent much of her quiet life searching for the son that was taken from her fifty years ago when she was forced to live at an Irish convent, burdened with guilt that the nuns bestowed upon her for becoming pregnant as a teenager.  But an encounter with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), an out of work political journalist who has little use for religion or human interest pieces, might just bring her closer to finding the answers.  He becomes intrigued by her story, and when the nunnery coldly refuses to help, they travel together to the United States, following the leads that might just reconnect her with her son and provide some much needed closure for this chapter of her life.

At times, Philomena allows this true story to play like a mystery, as the screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope reveals more and more details that make us feel the years worth of pain that this woman has experienced.  But not only is this a moving film, it’s also an important one.  The main story is beautifully edited together with heartbreaking flashbacks and home videos, revealing fascinating layers of depth that expose years worth of deceit that were being hidden behind the scenes of the Catholic Church.  The screenplay is tightly written, filled with sharp dialogue and thought provoking commentary in a similar vein as the masterful 2008 film Doubt, without losing sight of the genuine human emotions behind this remarkable true story.

Judi Dench delivers a deeply felt performance, as the actress conveys so much of how this character thinks and feels, through a look or gaze that is enough to break your heart.  Steve Coogan turns in remarkably nuanced supporting work, bringing a surprising amount of depth to this questioning and ultimately caring journalist.  The two have a delightfully natural chemistry together, even at times when their characters couldn’t be more different.  The experience of watching these two come to understand and help each other in different and sometimes unexpected ways is incredibly touching.

The final few scenes of Philomena provide a powerful confrontation that won’t soon be forgotten, as director Stephen Frears ends the film on a bittersweet note.  This is a moving and multilayered drama, that is beautifully carried by a pair of wonderful performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.


Philomena Review by Erin V.

***1/2 (out of 4)

Philomena follows the title character (Judi Dench) as she tries to track down the son she was forced to give up for adoption by Irish nuns in the 1950s.  With help from journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), she travels to the States (where many of the children were sent to) and finally begins to find the pieces of the puzzle that will lead her to her son.

The film is based on a true story, and is one that many, like Philomena, share.  Back in the 1950s, teen girls in Ireland (and other countries) who found themselves pregnant were often shipped off to the convent where they would have the child, and then be forced to give it up for adoption.  The children would often be adopted out of country and have no idea how to track down their birth mothers.  What the film also shows, is the reluctance towards help they would receive should mother or child want to reconnect in the future.

Judi Dench is excellent as Philomena, believably portraying the woman who has grieved for the loss of a child that was taken from her.  The young actress Sophie Kennedy Clark who plays Philomena in flashbacks as a teenager, is also very good.

All in all, Philomena provides an interesting look at how things were done even half a century ago, and how they are still affecting people today.  The film is worth seeing for its very strong performances, and the fact that it is a true story makes it all the more tragic and interesting.


Philomena Review by Nicole

***1/2 (out of 4)

Based on a book by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena tells the shocking true story of a woman whose son was taken from her and adopted out.  Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) runs into a woman (Anna Maxwel Martin) interested in finding her mother Philomena’s (Judi Dench) long lost son.  Martin reluctantly decides to help her out, and the two of them reveal a terrible time in history when Irish nuns would forcibly remove babies from their teenage mothers, and sell them to American families.  (It should be noted that all Catholic and Christian churches now condemn such practices).

Philomena is a quiet and interesting film.  The acting is brilliant, the scenery is gorgeous and the score by Alexandre Desplat is just hauntingly beautiful.  Philomena herself is a powerful figure, managing to forgive the nun who took away her child in the ’50s.  She maintains her Catholic faith, and her Christian belief in Jesus’ acts of forgiveness allows her to let go of hate.  Martin, on the other hand, has given up faith and finds it very hard to forgive others.  Philomena tells a very sad piece of history, but reminds us to forgive even when a great injustice has occurred.


Philomena Review by Maureen

***1/2 (out of 4)

A mother never forgets.  Even if it’s fifty years later and the baby boy she gave birth to was raised by an unknown family far away.  Philomena is inspired by the true story of Philomena Lee, as told in the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith.

In the 1950s, a young and naive Irish Catholic teen (Sophie Kennedy Clark) found herself alone and pregnant, sent away by her family in shame to an Irish convent where “sinful” young women gave birth to their babies and were forced to work in the Magdalene laundries.  Their children were then adopted out, mainly to American families.  Fifty years later, the now elderly Philomena (Judi Dench) wants closure and forgiveness.  Tired of living a lie, she sets out to find her son.  With the help of her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin), she teams up with former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to unravel the mystery of where her firstborn ended up.

Philomena and Martin embark on a journey from Ireland to Washington, D.C. and back again.  She is still a devout Catholic and he is cynical and agnostic.  Yet the pair develop a friendship of sorts, with Martin wanting to stand up for Philomena and get her some answers.  The convent would rather keep the past in the past, so his experience as a hard-nosed journalist is instrumental in discovering the truth.

Many will see Philomena as an attack on Catholicism, however I see it more as a reflection of a darker chapter in the Church’s history, and not a statement about the Church today as a whole.  Philomena’s act of forgiveness towards one of the nuns, Sister Hildegard (Barbara Jefford), shows a positive Christian attitude.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan both give wonderful performances.  Their scenes together are touching, heartfelt and often amusing.  They have a sweet chemistry together.  Judi Dench could easily get award nominations for her role, but it’s Steve Coogan who gives an especially strong performance.  He also co-wrote the screenplay and acted as producer.

With beautiful cinematography, well-written dialogue and strong performances, this is a touching and well told story of one woman’s experience of having her child taken from her.  Philomena is well worth seeing.


Philomena Review by Tony

**** (out of 4)

Philomena is a true story based on the book by British journalist/historian Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) about the search by Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) for her son. As a young unwed pregnant woman in 1950s Ireland, Philomena was forced to have her baby in a convent and live there working in the laundry until her son Anthony was taken away for adoption in America at three years of age. Despite grave threats from the nuns of eternal damnation should she ever disclose her sin, Philomena decided on his 50th birthday to try to find out about his life. The former broadcast journalist Sixmith had just lost his job as a government spin doctor. Though he considered human interest stories beneath him, he needed the work. Despite stonewalling from the convent, Lee and Sixsmith managed to find answers in the U.S. that brought them back home with some closure.

Some critics have dismissed Philomena as an anti-church diatribe, but most (including Lee herself) see it as it is, a story of real abuse that fortunately is largely in the past. Social institutions that were formerly largely church-run have a lot to answer for, not only in Ireland. Damage done by Canada’s residential schools, Québec’s Duplessis orphans (illegitimate children locked up in institutions as mentally defectives) and abusive religious brothers in Newfoundland schools will last for generations, but the Church should not be condemned as a whole for these aberrations. More ominously, backlash against the Duplessis “grande noirceur” (great darkness) that until a half century ago left education and social services in church hands is now being cynically used in Québec to propose limiting religious clothing for all faiths, appealing to xenophobia in communities unfamiliar with minorities.

In fact, Philomena is an incredibly moving film, with brilliant performances by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan reenacting a story that needs to be told. Far from being strident, the tone is quiet and respectful throughout, with welcome bits of humour. Director Stephen Frears fills in the story with flashbacks and archival home movie footage and the score from Alexandre Desplat fits the mood perfectly in every scene.

Though some, especially those too close to the truth, may find it disturbing, Philomena is highly recommended.


Consensus: With beautifully nuanced performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the excellent screenplay, Philomena is a moving drama that reveals a fascinating and heartbreaking true story.  ***1/2 (Out of 4)

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