Movie Review: Philomena

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A journalist helps a woman find the son that was taken from her and given up for adoption when she was a teenager.

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Stephen Frears, 2013

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has recently lost his job as a government advisor and is looking for a story that will help him return to his journalistic roots. He is approached at a party by Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), a young woman whose mother recently revealed that she had her son taken from her when she was a teenager. At first Martin is resistant to the idea of writing a human interest story, but he ultimately agrees to meet her mother, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who requests that Martin help her find her long-lost son. We flash back to young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who had sex as a teenager, ignorant to how human reproduction works, and became pregnant. Her parents shipped her off to a convent to have the baby. She was allowed to see him once a day until the day he was adopted by American parents. The older Philomena and Martin make their way to America to track down the boy that Philomena never forgot.

Philomena_Poster

Philomena is very aware of its pulpy roots, and its self-awareness is sometimes grating. Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones’ Catelyn Stark) puts in a good performance as a hard-as-nails editor, but her conversations with Coogan’s Sixsmith were a little too knowing for me. The movie needs to be telling its powerful, haunting story, rather than telling us how it’s telling that story. Coogan is fine, but easily overpowered by Judi Dench’s Oscar-nominated turn as Philomena. This is a woman who is instantly recognisable as someone you might know – your grandmother (or mine anyway, whom I’m pretty sure had the same dressing gown/robe set), the kindly straight-talking elderly neighbour, a nurse you once had at the hospital – which makes her trauma and pain all the more effective. The script counterbalances the sadness with heart and humour, and Dench delivers every line with perfect authenticity. Also stunning is Sophie Kennedy Clark as the younger Philomena, whose screams are heart-piercing as they take her son away. There are plenty of unexpected turns that the story takes, which gives the film a mystery quality that is welcome and engaging. There’s also a much more clever parallel in the books Philomena is reading than the obvious discussions about narrative.

It’s great to see women’s stories being addressed in such an interesting film that refuses to sink to cheesy sentimentality and audience manipulation to wring emotion out of you. One imagines that the staunch and matter-of-fact Philomena would approve of the storytelling. I’d prefer it if the film were more about her narrative and less about Martin’s parallel one – he gets more screentime than Philomena, even though it’s supposed to be her story. There are powerful messages about the evil done in the name of religion, but also about its redemptive powers. It also holds messages about the demonisation of sex and how damaging it is to people’s lives. It’s a well-made movie, worth seeing, and not just because your mum loved it.

Philomena on IMDb

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review: Philomena

    • I think “funny and pleasant” is dismissive of a movie about something so important. It’s very, very sad in places, and it’s about a terrible thing that happened to a lot of women. It does have humourous moments, but what drives the movie is an example of institutionalised sexism.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Obviously the films true intentions are to convey stronger and more important messages and values something the trailer doesn’t touch upon! Nevertheless Im still eager to see this one.

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