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PHILOMENA (review)

Review by Caitlyn Thompson
Produced by Gabrielle Tan,  Steve Coogan, Tracey Seaward
Written by Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, 
Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, 
Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon

Twentieth Century Fox/The Weinstein Company / Rated PG-13

Based on a true story, Philomena, tells the story of Philomena Lee’s search for the long lost son she gave birth to out of wedlock in the fifties.

Flashbacks reveal that she was “taken in” by the Church, but in exchange for shelter she’s forced into hard labor and has limited time with her son before he’s sold to an American family against her will. 

After fifty years of silence, Philomena’s (Dame Judy Dench) story is brought to Martin Sixsmith (Steven Coogan) a cynical and fallen journalist whose only current interest involves being gruff and regaining credibility in the news world.

In an attempt to revamp his career, Martin reluctantly agrees to write Philomena’s story as a human-interest piece.

While the performances of Philomena are wonderful, I found the structure of the film, alongside an unimpressive score, rather distracting at times. The flashbacks are overly dramatic (borderline intrusive) and were quite lengthy for a ninety-minute feature. With a campy, PBS-special-like melody accompanying those flashbacks, I was taken out of the story – which is actually complex and enjoyable. 

The search for Philomena’s son surprisingly avoids trite moments of realization and mushy emotionality – spoiler: No. It’s not Coogan. That would’ve been barf. Instead, the journey is delightfully mysterious.

Philomena is a female lead to be admired and watched closely. Her giddy love of romance novels (and spoiling the books from start to end) has that adorable, head-shaking, lovability that comes with elderly folks.  She’s chaste and conservative, but has a hilarious potty mouth and awareness, that accentuates her status as a wise old woman who has observed and experienced a lot of pain. But instead of a depressive and complaining attitude, she’s compassionate and smiley to all. There is no room for grudges.

However, alongside that youthful exuberance, is palpable guilt, which is heart breaking in quiet moments. But nothing deters Philomena’s eternal optimism.

In contrast, Coogan expertly delivers his disdain for such sentimentality. Having been a political advisor for so long, Martin is tired and jaded. His demeanor is always abrupt and condescending. But of course Philomena is never shy in telling him to be more polite.

The villain in Philomena is the Church. And it’s easy to despise their cruelty, but Coogan and Dench’s characters challenge viewers to face the difficult task of forgiving and being positive regardless of past wrongdoings. 

And Philomena’s positivity cannot be trumped by Martin’s negativity. In a powerful scene where Coogan has just exploded, Dench calmly says, “I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.”

Coogen shouts back, “I’m angry!”

And she breathes, “It must be exhausting.”

It’s a phenomenal statement.

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