My review of “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

Dame Judi Dench portrays Philomena Lee who, as a young nun, bore a child while living in Ireland’s Rosecrea Abbey. The convent’s practice in the 1950s was to give up these secret out-of-wedlock children for adoption to American families and punish (shame) the women with long days of manual labor. Enter out-of-work BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who reluctantly becomes Philomena’s partner on a bumpy, winding road trip to locate the son she lost 50 years earlier.

A tremendous suspension of disbelief would be in order if not for the fact that this is based on a true story, making Philomena and Martin’s quest that much more shocking. While hypocrisy abounds as she tries to break through the church’s wall of silence, Philomena is ultimately a delightful road movie whose narrative effectively blends controversial ideas about religion and politics with a basic human interest story.

At 72 years young, iconic British director Stephen Frears is still going strong. He was nominated for Oscars in 1990 for The Grifters and for The Queen in 2006. Other notable projects include My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, and Mrs. Henderson Presents. He’s perhaps even better known in the UK for his extensive television directorial career. The true story of Philomena is documented in the book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith. It was adapted for the screen by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who plays Sixsmith in the film (and serves as producer).   

This dual tour-de-force for Dench and Coogan owes much to their ability to craft in the moment, as Frears allowed the pair to freely improvise as the situation called for it. Coogan’s signature style of comic relief is evident throughout (hence the writing credit), but never approaches the level of farce so common in British comedy. The script strikes a perfect balance of humor and pathos, with so many memorable clever lines and enough fascinating reveals to keep viewers thoroughly engaged. But the picture remains grounded in its achingly real drama, a critical point which makes Philomena so poignant and heartwarming.

High production values are evidence of a filmmaking consortium passionate about the material. The picture was produced by Magnolia Mae Films and Baby Cow Productions, with support from BBC Films, the British Film Institute (BFI), and French production powerhouse Pathé.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who shot Red Road, one of the most acclaimed titles of the 2006-2007 festival circuit) showcases the gorgeous landscape and sweeping vistas of the Irish countryside, as well as America’s urban bustle surrounding Washington, D.C., without losing focus on the two remarkable actors who drive the narrative. Valerio Bonelli (The Dreamers, Hannibal Rising, Redemption) handled the editing. Shot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Ryan eschews the widescreen format dominating films today, making it much more personal. Flashbacks to her lonely days in the abbey have a cold color palette, reflecting the hopelessness of Philomena during those painful years. Scenes in present-day Ireland are warm, newly hopeful, with Dench’s face aglow. She’s lit like an angel, despite her past “sins.” There’s abundant beauty onscreen in the context of the ugliness at the heart of the story.

Alexandre Desplat is one of the few composers working today whose name is immediately recognizable even to the casual moviegoer. Among his 125 titles, he’s been nominated for Oscars five times in seven years. These award-winning films include Frears’ The Queen (2006), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), The King’s Speech (2010), and Argo (2012). It goes without saying that his marvelous score for Philomena is one of the picture’s highlights and notable from the start. Few have the ability to bring an audience to tears with a plaintive violin here, a soft piano there, and it will happen many times during the course of Philomena’s journey.    

This is one of those rare motion pictures that transforms itself and seamlessly blends from one genre to another as the plot unfolds. Audiences are likely to be surprised, alternately horrified and delighted, as they tag along with Dench and Coogan in their quest for the truth. Philomena is filled with unexpected twists and turns, an experience that viewers won't soon forget.  

Philomena Theatrical Trailer - Judi Dench, Steve Coogan - HD (2013)

Movie: Philomena, Director: Stephen Frears, Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope Genre:…
  • Video Release: September 28, 2013
  • Length: 2.50 min
  • Views: 8447


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at

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  • Author: Larry Richman
  • Posted: November 22, 2013
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