Review: Philomena

Philomena poster detail

Philomena got raves reviews when it came out in theaters in 2013, but I missed seeing it then. I’ve made up for that now, because it’s currently available on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.

I give the film a rave review as well. It’s wonderful, and full of the human interest that was so feared by the hard-news journalist in the film.

Spoilers ahead.

Judy Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

The story is based in fact. Philomena Lee is a real woman. She’s played in the film by Judi Dench. The young Philomena is played by Sophie Kennedy Clark. Steve Coogan plays the burned out and cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith.

Philomena is a devout Catholic. Even though she was abused and wronged by the church and the nuns at Ireland’s Rosecrea Abbey. She forgives the nuns, she forgives the church, she believes hers was the sin.

What do I mean? As an unmarried teen, Philomena had a child. The nuns took her in, attended to the birth, and kept her in forced labor for 4 years to pay off that obligation. Her son was sold to an American couple when he was about 2 or 3 years old. Selling children to Americans for adoption after obtaining them from desperate young Irish women was a thriving industry for the nuns at that time.

Later in life, Philomena returns to the abbey in search of her son several times. She believes the nuns when they tell her all the records were lost in a fire.

Philomena becomes a nurse, marries, has a daughter. She keeps her son a secret for 50 years. On her son’s 50th birthday, she tells her daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell-Martin) the story.

Then out-of-work writer Martin Sixsmith happens into her life. He is not a member of the faith, he trusts nothing the nuns tell Philomena. He pieces together the facts about her son being taken to America.

The two of them head for America together. Sixsmith quickly figures out what became of the boy. The remainder of the film is Philomena dealing with what she learns in America. I don’t want to give you the details of that search and its results, because it unfolds beautifully in the film. Watch and enjoy it for yourself.

Philomena is the most wonderful paradox. She is absolutely trusting in her faith, almost childlike in her knowledge of the world, but grounded and utterly practical from her nursing experience. She can toss off a remark about a clitoris or a homosexual with the same cheerful demeanor that she talks about being kind to the personnel in a hotel, or fails to foresee the outcome of one of the romance novels she reads.

Sixsmith is sophisticated, urbane, and world weary. Philomena’s cheer and joy baffles and annoys him. He doesn’t much care about her story at the beginning, he simply sees Philomena as a means to a much needed paycheck. He eventually gets hooked on finding out what happened, and cares about Philomena’s feelings as she learns the truth. He wants to further investigate the scandal of what the nuns did, but Philomena is not interested in bring shame to the church.

The story is beautifully told, wonderfully acted, and definitely a must-watch film. Judi Dench is brilliant. Watch the trailer.

Images © 2013 – The Weinstein Company

2 thoughts on “Review: Philomena”

  1. I saw this remarkable film when it first came out, since it seems that this is becoming a favorite topic for me—catching out religion in the many ways it controls and maims people. Of course, I am very taken with Judy Dench, brilliant actor that she is!

    1. I agree. So much evil has been done in the name of religion and still we cling to it for respite. And we defend it with such violence! It’s one of the great paradoxes of the human mind and spirit.

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