Movie Review: 'Philomena' (2013)

The first word that comes to mind when describing “Philomena” is that it is curious. It’s a drama with awkward moments of comedy, a road trip movie without much car travel and juxtaposed characters whose conflict never reaches any clear resolution.

Based on a true story, the film tells of the titular Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) as she implores journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to find the son she had to give up for adoption 50 years ago, when she was a teenager stranded by her father at a convent in Ireland.

Having heard and read about this film, there were personal expectations as to what it would be like and perhaps that’s why on some levels it disappoints. There is nothing remotely humorous in the movie, despite the presence of Steve Coogan. As Martin Sixsmith he brings his normal, blistery charm to the role. Dench is convincing in her role as Philomena, softer and warmer than in recent screen appearances.

Upon the outset of the film it is apparent there is going to be conflict between the sweet Philomena and Coogan’s sharp tongued Sixsmith. Coming from separate ideologies, it was understandable they would clash and the film presents Philomena as steadfast in her beliefs in the Catholic faith, despite outward criticism and judgments on how she should react to how she was treated. 

Realistically, there are no changed hearts on either side. Philomena is not living with anger over the past. She simply wants to find her son. As Sixsmith never holds back a barb, an antagonistic relationship evolves, albeit Philomena only engages with kind-hearted comebacks.

Stereotypical movie lore would normally dictate that the two would grow to understand each other’s opinion or have an overarching change of heart, altogether. Neither occurs, however a reasonable respect from Sixsmith is demonstrated towards Philomena. A budding friendship, road trip movie, this certainly is not.

As a film it is a tad scattershot, never finding a clear narrative voice. It’s emotionally uneven at times and Stephen Frear’s direction overreaches, feeling a bit desperate to emotionally involve the audience. It is Philomena’s story and while, the facts of what she went through are explained; her views on what she went through play a major part in the film.

There are times when she is presented in a contradictory fashion, which is somewhat understandable given she is a woman in personal turmoil. Torn between what she has been told she has done wrong and what she feels was right.

As a viewer, it's hard to reconcile the generous way she's depicted with certain decisions she is shown making, which aren’t in keeping with the viewpoint of the direction. She's presented on-screen, as this very devout, kind woman so it is hard to believe that she would not try to contact a fellow mother from the convent, whose daughter was taken from her, and adopted to the same family as Philomena’s son.

She makes no mention of including that woman in the search so that she too, can find her child. She never even mentions her, at a crucial moment, later in the film and that mother was shown being just as distraught as she was over what happened.

In the end, “Philomena” offers a commentary on living lives that conflict with the personally held beliefs of the people living them. It is clear the film’s titular character had natural inclinations against church rhetoric. Her conflict comes from not being able to reconcile that with what her mind has been told about those inclinations.

Her son shares in common with his birth mother that they had both tried to fit into a world where their natural thoughts and feelings, are not totally accepted by the atmosphere they are a part of. They are haunted by the duality of doing what they believe in and hiding what they are told to be ashamed of. That is one of the main layers of the tragedy.

Sixsmith and the nuns presented in the film both have clear ideologies. They are just on opposite sides of the same coin. Clearly feeling there is a distinct wrong and right answer to everything.

Philomena is a grey thinker, a person caught between two worlds. She represents a part of society that is forced to choose a path or risk being swept aside all together.

The natural feelings that someone must battle to be a part of the society that can’t accept them for who they truly are, is a chief cornerstone of the film. The silent suffering of those among us is a story still unraveling that can have its ending re-written. Unfortunately for Philomena and her son, it is too late. Rating: 7/10