Film Review: Philomena

After having a child out of wedlock, Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) was forced to give up her son by Catholic nuns. 50 years laters, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hears about Philomena’s story and helps her to search for her long-lost son.

When I wrote my review of Danish film The Hunt, I said that it made me incredibly angry, an emotion that very few films have evoked in me. However, it didn’t take too long for another film to do the same, and Philomena left me seething as I walked out of the cinema.

Philomena is another of those films inspired by a true story – it’s based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Steve Coogan’s character, journo Martin Sixsmith – and it’s this that makes the film all the more harrowing.

Without wanting to spoil anything, the film has its highs and lows, with certain groups portrayed less than favourably, namely journalists and the Catholic Church, and it’s the latter from which my anger emanated (although it’s not totally one-sided). What’s excellent, however, is that it doesn’t ram a particular message down your throat and, for the most part, lets you draw your own conclusions and pick your own side. At times it does feel slightly manipulative in trying to make you feel sympathy for Philomena when it really doesn’t need to; the general story does that by itself.

The two central performances of Dench and Coogan are fantastic and play off brilliantly against one another. For much of the film, they are very much ice and fire personalities, with Philomena’s simple, perhaps naïve, view of the world contrasted with Sixsmith’s much more negative (albeit probably realistic) view.

Despite the title, Philomena is just as much Sixsmith’s story as the titular character’s. At the film’s outset, we see him unsure of whether he’d stoop as ‘low’ as a human interest story but by the end we really see a transformation, and it really adds an extra dimension to the film. It would have been easy to just solely focus on Philomena but Sixsmith’s story is almost as compelling.

And what’s somewhat surprising is just how funny the film is. Coogan’s touch is all over the script (some lines could come straight out of Alan Partridge) and both main characters get their fair share of laugh-out-loud lines. It’s similar in subject matter to Peter Mullen’s excellent The Magdelene Sisters but comes at it from a much more light-hearted (but no less heart-wrenching) angle. This humour is needed, too; without it, the film could be very dour and a little too heavy, so kudos to Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope for getting the balance just right.

After watching Philomena, you’ll likely side with one of the two main characters (I certainly did), and it’s this duality that the film hammers home, which should ensure almost everyone will come away with a different experience and opinion. It’s not always the happiest of films, but it’s filled with heart and at its most effective is one of the most powerful films of the year.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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32 thoughts on “Film Review: Philomena

  1. jjames36 says:

    I haven’t heard of this one yet, much less seen it. But you’ve piqued my interest. Now I want to see it.

  2. theipc says:

    I don’t think this is one I’ll check out but I like what you’ve done out here today.

  3. CMrok93 says:

    For some reason, I didn’t really like this one. I felt like its tone and messages were so all-over-the-place that, rather than hitting me hard with its honest point, it just seemed lost in the jumble. Although, I will give credit to Coogan and Dench for making this at least somewhat pleasant. Good review.

    • Thanks Dan, shame you didn’t like it. I thought it had a really nice tone to it, balanced well between the emotional side of things and a more humorous angle. Judi Dench said that in real life Philomena is a genuinely funny person and I thought that really came across.

  4. Tom says:

    I might have to see this just to see Judi Dench outside her role of M! :D

    Great write up Chris

    • Thanks Tom! Dench is fantastic and I wouldn’t be surprised if she picks up an Oscar nomination to be honest. It’s really interesting as she normally plays women in quite strong positions of power but it’s a real departure from that here and she nails it.

  5. Caz says:

    Brilliant review, the performances from Dench and Coogan really are fantastic and they work so well together. I think it is a rather haunting story as I am still thinking about it now over a week after seeing the film. I understand the anger as well and siding with one of the main characters!

    • Thank you! It really left me thinking about it for a while afterwards and I must admit I sided with Steve Coogan’s character in the end, although I wish I could have sided with Dench’s. They really are great together, I was quite surprised by how well it worked.

      • Caz says:

        Yeah I sided with Coogan as well just couldn’t get over the forgiveness of it all. I was truly into the story and wanted to see some remorse from the nun!

  6. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I read a bit about this the other day. Don’t know when it’s coming out here, but I’m eager to see this.

  7. ruth says:

    I was actually planning to go to the screening for this tonight but my schedule didn’t end up working out :( Glad to hear this is SO good, I adore Dame Judi and she was the main draw for me. Clearly she didn’t disappoint, why am I not surprised? :D

  8. Been meaning to catch this; you’ve made me want to see it even more buddy. Thank you!

  9. Wonderful! Sounds great and the cast is right up my alley. Thanks for the head’s up :)

  10. Mark Walker says:

    Great work Chris. I was actually going to overlook this but you’ve made me think again. Sounds very good indeed. Thanks for the linkage as well, my man. That was a nice surprise. :)

    • Thanks Mark! It’s worth a watch if you get the chance. It won’t lose anything on the small screen though if you don’t see it at cinemas. And no problems on the link, I remembered you reviewed it and it’s a great film that not that many seem to have seen.

  11. keith7198 says:

    This sounds fascinating and may be right up my alley. Thanks for the review. Wasn’t familiar with it until now.

  12. sati says:

    Awesome review! I cannot wait to see this movie, Dench never disappoints.

  13. Great review. One of my most anticipated of the year. The premise is intriguing and Judi Dench can do no wrong!

  14. table9mutant says:

    Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped this – did Don Jon instead…

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