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Review: Philomena (2013)

Philomena (2013)

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Premise: Based on a true story, an elderly Irish woman (Judi Dench) pairs with a journalist (Steve Coogan) to search for the son she was forced to put up for adoption.

What Works: Philomena is a well-made drama from Stephen Frears, who had previously directed pictures like Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen, and High Fidelity. Frears is a director whose filmmaking style is not very flamboyant but he is very good at creating engaging stories with empathetic characters, often demystifying social institutions and high society figures in the process. That is exactly what he has done in Philomena. The title character is an elderly Irish woman and in any other movie she might be the kind of person who would be disregarded or made into a caricature but actress Judi Dench and the filmmakers embrace her flaws and idiosyncrasies and she becomes very endearing. Dench provides a terrific performance but because she is so esteemed the actress isn’t as surprising as Steve Coogan, who plays journalist Martin Sixsmith. In contrast to Dench, Coogan has often been relegated to supporting parts in stupid movies. That makes his performance in Philomena, as well as his co-screenwriting credit, the major revelation of this film. Although Philomena has generally fared well among critics, the film has been accused by some of being anti-Catholic. Without question, the Catholic Church does not come off well in Philomena, as the story recounts the abuses of the Magdalene convents, in which single mothers were imprisoned as indentured servants and had their children taken from them. The horrors of these institutions have been the inspiration for other movies, namely the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, but Philomena should not be dismissed as an anti-Catholic hatchet job. Firstly, the movie deals with a history of abuse that actually occurred and whose victims are still among the living. That makes this subject relevant and fair game for dramatization. But more importantly, Philomena is centrally about the struggle of faith. As depicted in the movie, Philomena Lee is a woman who suffered at the hands of religious authorities and institutions but has maintained her faith. That maintenance is not a simple-minded surrender but a struggle and a yearning for grace. This comes out in Philomena’s interactions with reporter Martin Sixsmith, an atheist who consistently belittles the Church and people of faith. The triangular relationship between Philomena, Sixsmith, and the Church allows the film to get beyond its immediate circumstances and dramatize something much deeper and more profound: the tension of contemporary religious life between the ugliness of religious history and the aspiration for grace and redemption. Far from an anti-religious piece, Philomena is a smart and sensitive exploration of the attempt to hold onto religious values in contemporary society.

What Doesn’t: Because Philomena is a sophisticated take on religious life, it faces a challenge. The culture has bifurcated on religious issues, and movie studios have responded by producing and marketing religious titles like Fireproof directly to a niche audience while films like Religulous speak specifically and solely to atheistic viewers. These movies do not offer challenging ideas but instead comfort their constituency and ridicule the opposition. There is no crossover appeal and for that reason it is unclear if there is an audience for Philomena. There should be audience; the film certainly deserves one, but given the polarization in the culture it may not find the appreciation it deserves.

Bottom Line: Philomena is at its core a compassionate film about people struggling to overcome histories of abuse. As heavy as that sounds, the film also has a sweetness and a sense of humor, making it very enjoyable even while it addresses weighty issues. 

Episode: #472 (January 5, 2014)