GRADE: 5 out of 5
One of the most moving, deeply affecting films I’ve seen this year. Brit’s national treasure, Judi Dench, once again proves that there’s no stopping her, not age, nor anything because her marvelous performance as Philomena, a woman whose baby son was taken away from her, is one for the books. Funnyman Steve Coogan also surprises me, this isn’t his first dramatic role, but certainly one that I can consider a breath of fresh air from his part. PHILOMENA is a rare gem of a true human interest story that reaches out to you and mends your broken heart.
Based on the 2009 investigative book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, PHILOMENA focuses on the efforts of Philomena Lee (Dench), mother to a boy conceived out of wedlock – something her Irish-Catholic community didn’t have the highest opinion of – and given away for adoption in the United States. In following church doctrine, she was forced to sign a contract that wouldn’t allow for any sort of inquiry into the son’s whereabouts. After starting a family years later in England and, for the most part, moving on with her life, Lee meets Sixsmith (Coogan), a BBC reporter with whom she decides to discover her long-lost son.
This film has been criticized by a few critics for it seemingly attacking the Catholic Church and offending Catholics everywhere, but if that’s what you take away from PHILOMENA, then you’re missing the bigger picture. It doesn’t have to be Catholics, it can be any denomination, it can be any belief system, it can be any kind of oppressors who force their way of life on you, make you feel worthless, and decide your fate without you have any say about it, so in a sense, it’s not necessarily Catholic church, it’s this story that shows a bully and a bully can come in different forms.
PHILOMENA is one of those movies that make you feel glad afterward that somebody was brave enough to tell her side of a story and somebody else was brave enough to document it and allow the public to know what happened. And I love the dynamics between the two characters, Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith who just got sacked from his highly publicized job and Dech’s Philomena, this old Irish woman who surprisingly is open-minded and progressive. Sixsmith was raised a Catholic but is no longer a believer, while despite everything that has been taken away from Philomena, for some odd reason Sixsmith can’t understand, Philomena still clings to her belief. But their road trip across the pond and back full circle, affects their notion of what it means to be a believer or non-believer and that’s what makes this movie interesting, it doesn’t necessarily take sides, it shows you both sides and they each have their own strengths and weakness and what they can do to a person’s behavior, state of mind and how he or she goes about making his decisions of what’s best for themselves. PHILOMENA is a great character study told through powerful performances, smart humor, and a heart-wrenching turns heartwarming drama.
Director Stephen Frears and screenwriters Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan wants the audience to wonder whether any revelation that comes along the way would change Sixsmith - Philomena’s friendship for the better or the worse. If any, it’s entertaining as it is already to see a journalist trying to stay polite to an old woman without driving himself insane. Judi Dench is an actress whose work I can always watch again and again, and I’ll never get bored, she makes it look so easy, not just as Philomena, but in any role, she’s effortless, and I sure hope we the audience can still see her continue to unleash her best for many more years to come.