Film Review: Philomena (Pathe & BBC Films; 2013)

BY PETER MCGORAN

Based on a heart-breaking true story about Philomena Lee – a woman who was forced work in a convent in southern Ireland and made to give up her four year old son for adoption by the nuns who ran it – this movie brings together the unlikely pairing of Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (the Labour spin-doctor turned failing journalist who wants to make an expose from tracking down her son).

The plot, which seems initially basic, serves to present an eye-opening critique of the Catholic Church’s role in Ireland as well show  the irrevocable love of a mother for her son. The open scenes are reminiscent of the kind of tragic scenarios we were presented with in The Magdalene Sisters and sets up the hard journey which follows. From Ireland to England then on as far as America, we follow softly-spoken, naïve Philomena and her journalistic benefactor, Martin Sixsmith, as their increasingly unsuccessful excursions force them to reflect on what is important and meaningful in their lives. This is where the film really excels; it doesn’t oversell itself with flashy gimmicks yet it’s able to very carefully touch upon such grand ideas as religion, sin and forgiveness, sexual liberation and the afterlife.

All of this is fuelled through the dialogue between our protagonists, Coogan and Dench. Both characters have wonderful, exciting chemistry which is an absolute necessity in this movie and really gives it its edge. With Dench’s mesmerizing titular role and her laudable Tipperary accent, and Coogan’s wit and charm, it’s not unfair to say that this movie wouldn’t have been as brilliant had even one of the roles been bestowed upon someone else.

And despite minor grumblings that the plot begins to wane slightly about halfway through, it’s hard to lay down many sufficient criticisms of Philomena. The story bounces back at the end for a fantastic and thought-provoking finale which is likely to move more than a few members of the audience to tears.

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