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PHILOMENA (review)

Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

Philomena Lee: I would like to know if Anthony ever thought of me because I thought of him every day.

Sometimes simple is best and PHILOMENA, the latest film from Academy Award-nominated director, Stephen Frears (THE QUEEN), embodies this concept brilliantly.Sometime in the 1950’s, a teenage Philomena met a boy at a fair and found herself pregnant with his child not too long afterwards. Abandoned by the boy and her own family, she found herself at a convent in Ireland. This is where her horror began. What Philomena went through and lived with for the next fifty years would be more than most people could ever handle. Had the film based on her struggles focused solely on how horrifying her experience was, it would also be too unbearable to sit through. In Frears’s hands, Philomena’s story is always told with respect and does not shy away from the darker elements, but Frears consistently finds a way to reassure the viewer that everything will turn out fine, no matter what happens. In that regard, his film is as forgiving as the person whose story he is telling.


Philomena (Judi Dench) had to give up the child she had at the convent. She was then subjected to forced labour to repay her supposed debt to the convent and make amends for her indiscretions. Meanwhile, the nuns were selling the children had at their establishment to rich, American families. Philomena lost her boy, Anthony, when he was just four and for the next fifty years, she told no one out of shame for what she had brought upon herself and her son for having fornicated. Once she does open up about her past, she enlists the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the disgraced former advisor to the British Labour Party, to help track down her long lost son. Sixsmith is a little lost at the moment himself so he decides to help Philomena and help himself as well to a human interest story in the process. Their search takes them to America and the two begin to clash on topics as varied as religion and the right to privacy. What they find along the way is both heartbreaking and life affirming at the same time. The film’s ability to make you either cry or laugh out loud depending on the moment is one of its greatest attributes.


PHILOMENA is a great success for all involved. Frears does capture a truly warm tone that is as inviting as it is infectious but he could never have gotten there alone. Coogan, a man known for his great comedic abilities, co-wrote this tender script, which is based on the book Sixsmith published about his experience with Philomena. As surprising as it is at times that he was able to write something so sensitive, his understated performance is even more impressive. This is doubly so when you consider that he manages to stand out while acting opposite the fantastic Dench. Dench has given so many grand performances before but Philomena is one of her all time best. Philomena is nothing if not fully genuine at all times and Dench can go from charming to serious to devastated in a split second depending on what’s needed. It is as if she cannot contain her emotions; they just happen spontaneously on her weathered face and, as a result, when Philomena is happy, so are we; by that same token though, when Philomena is heartbroken, we are as well. At times in the film, Philomena questions whether she wants her story told but in the end, the perfect people came together to do it the justice it deserved.


Your turn!

How many sheep would you give Philomena?



  1. Thank you sincerely for not giving away the plot points and twists that other reviewers selfishly gave away about when writing about this movie. I saw this at TIFF, only to see Judi Dench…well that and Frears’ movies are hard to resist, and fell in love with it. No surprise it was the Runner Up at TIFF for Audience Choice.

    • Thanks for reading! I didn’t feel it was necessary to discuss the tone and themes of the films and give away the plot points as well. It is a very emotional film and that is what I chose to focus on. Glad you enjoyed it. It is pretty irresistible.

  2. Your review is a delight and like you I think it is a sublime film in which Stephen Frears has found the perfect tone to narrate with his customary subtlety the story of an encounter and of a double quest. That of a mother but also that of a journalist whose pseudo certainties are shattered, which, paradoxically enough, makes him stronger by giving him (back) the capacity to be moved by another human being. Judi Dench depicts in a breathtaking way all the complexity and the density of the emotions and thoughts of this luminous Philomena. She achieves this with the grace and the delicacy which are part and parcel of her acting skills and with this extraordinary capacity she possesses to embody the beauty, the frailty and the strength of the human soul.

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