Movie Information

The Story: Fact-based story of the search for a child given up for adoption 50 years after the fact. The Lowdown: Beautifully crafted, intelligently written and anchored by marvelously nuanced performances from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena is a delightful, emotionally satisfying awards-season surprise.
Genre: Fact-Based Drama Comedy
Director: Stephen Frears (The Queen)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Peter Hermann
Rated: PG-13

Chances are good that Stephen Frears’ fact-based Philomena is the most perfectly crafted, expertly made, finely calculated movie you will see this year. Oh, you will see — you probably already have seen — better films, but whether you’ll encounter anything else so precisely successful at what it sets out to do, I’m doubtful. This is a splendid meeting of director, screenplay and stars. I don’t know that Stephen Frears has ever made a bad film — though he’s certainly made some lesser ones — but Philomena is definitely on the high-end of his filmography. That it stars Judi Dench will probably ensure that it will be one of his most successful, too. Face it, there’s a section of the moviegoing public who will flock to see any film she stars in. (You know who you are.) That this movie pairs her with the cynical Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote and co-produced the film) is another plus. Yes, it makes them into a fairly standard odd couple — and its “surprises” are more satisfying than surprising — but in their hands, the chemistry of the hardened cynic and the seemingly unworldly little old lady is pretty irresistible.

Dench stars as Philomena Lee, a woman who, 50 years earlier, had an out-of-wedlock son in an Irish Catholic convent. The son was not merely taken away from her but was actually sold by the convent (the going rate at the time being, it seems, was £1000). Her own efforts to find her son had come to nothing but pat excuses about a fire that destroyed the records from that era. It happens that her story lands on the desk of former star reporter and government press secretary Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). It’s the sort of tale that not only doesn’t interest him, but that he holds in complete contempt. However, with his career in need of a jump-start, he grudgingly ends up pursuing it for a newspaper that’s keen on the story — as long as it’s “really, really happy or really, really sad.”

Not surprisingly, Sixsmith is almost painfully condescending toward Philomena — but she’s clearly not as oblivious to his contempt as she appears. But once he becomes involved in the story — and especially once he realizes that the convent is handing Philomena a carefully contrived snow-job — that attitude starts to change. Where Philomena is satisfied that all the paperwork was destroyed in a convenient fire — except, of course, the document where she signed away her rights to the child — Sixsmith isn’t. And it doesn’t take long before he unearths the convent’s brisk business of selling children for adoption — primarily to rich Americans. This naturally takes them to America to find the truth. This is where I’ll leave the film to tell its own story. What happens is sufficiently unexpected that it deserves to be experienced in the film, not in a review.

What makes Philomena work — apart from the shrewd performances — is the craftsmanship Frears brings to the storytelling. As he blends past and present, his seemingly effortless stylishness is the assured work of a master filmmaker (one who always sells himself short in interviews). Yes, Dench and Coogan are remarkable. Without them, the film probably wouldn’t work at all. Dench, in particular, is a source of endless delight as she casually reveals herself to be far more worldly (and non-judgmentally broad-minded) than we expect. That she started out as something of a joke, while Sixsmith is revealed to be the real joke, is pure joy. So much of what makes the movie come together lies in Frears’ ability to tell the story with a keen eye and full control over how to dispense its inevitably sentimental aspects. This may just be the season’s surprise must-see. Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “Philomena

  1. luluthebeast

    [b](You know who you are.)[/b]

    I certainly do! But I’m also a fan of Frears, so it seems like a perfect match. Even Mary is looking forward to this. If it ever gets here that is.

  2. I caught an advance screening of this yesterday and loved it.

    I was pleasantly surprised at how funny it was (sometimes bitterly so), and I thought the climax was deftly executed, with a tough needle to thread to create a satisfying conclusion without betraying Philomena’s character or the real events.

    It also features the most loathsome cinematic villains of 2013.

  3. Ken Hanke

    The real trick to me is that it does all this without making Philomena look like a boob for holding onto her belief in the Church.

  4. T.rex

    Fantastic film. I’m very glad I got to see it just before the Oscars air. It’s not my pick for best of 2013 but it definitely deserves the nomination. I know there was some dramatic license but I didn’t think I could hate Catholicism any more than I did before I saw this.

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