‘Philomena’ (2013) Movie Review – Toronto Film Festival

Philomena movie review
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

If the real Philomena Lee is anything like the character written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and portrayed by Judi Dench in Stephen FrearsPhilomena it instantly makes the world a better place. Her very nature makes this film as uplifting, moving, funny and heartfelt as it is.

Based on the 2009 book written by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, Philomena traces the story of an aging Irish woman as she’s aided by Sixsmith to track down the son she had to give up 50 years earlier when she was only a teenager at the convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary. The search follows a path you won’t soon expect and as each page of the story is written you find yourself increasingly invested in what they find.

Coogan stars as Martin, bringing his particular dry sense of humor and wit to a character that may in fact be over-matched by Judi Dench in the title role. Philomena Lee is portrayed as a bit of a no-nonsense spitfire. As she learns details about her son, some that may be considered shameful by people her age, she shows no worries, only love for the son she finally hopes to be reunited with.

Even after she and Martin are essentially shooed away following their first visit to the convent, hoping for any details that would aid them in their search, she recounts how great the sex was with the young man that impregnated her all those years ago saying in her sweet Irish accent, “Thing is, I didn’t even know I had a clitoris Martin.” Coogan’s eyes widen and Philomena has the audience in the palm of her hand.

It’s a line like this that proves to be the key to this movie. Not only is Philomena a sympathetic victim, she’s a person, and the film treats and respects her as such. She’s a ball of life that has never given up and opposite Martin’s cynicism, the audience is offered the opportunity to experience a range of emotions as anger and forgiveness battle for the moral high ground.

Frears has been on a bit of a downhill slide as of late. I avoided Lay the Favorite because I hadn’t heard a single positive thing said about it and neither Tamara Drewe or Cheri were exactly stunners. Not since The Queen has he delivered a film this proficient and in many ways it bests that film which eventually won Helen Mirren her only Oscar along with five other nominations.

For all intents and purposes, Philomena is a drama, but it’s use of humor keeps it bursting with energy in-between the more emotional moments, but it’s not “ha ha” humor. These aren’t jokes and punchlines as much as they are natural moments of every day life, comments meant to lighten the mood or merely Philomena speaking to a Mexican chef at a buffet bar and remarking on how much she likes nachos. It’s through this approach I feel comfortable referring to the two leads simply as Martin and Philomena. You get to know these two, not because of personal details revealed through establishing their character’s back-stories, but merely by spending time with them.

That said, Coogan is great as Martin, but it’s Dench that truly stands out as a woman of strength and worldly wisdom well beyond her years. Philomena’s faith in God guides her and religion plays heavily on the story as it naturally would given the involvement of the abbey at Roscrea, but also given Martin’s beliefs or lack thereof. Like I said, the screenplay affords the audience the opportunity to see each and every scene from two vantage points and the strong-willed nature of both Philomena and Martin create an emotional balance that’s really hard to achieve in cinema. A lot of credit certainly goes to Frears and the performances, but Coogan and Pope’s screenplay deserves just as much attention.

Coogan’s writing career has largely involved smaller projects and teleplays and the same goes for Pope, but they certainly tapped into something special with this story and all the right talent came together to bring it to life.

Frears puts his trust in his actors, as he should. Alexandre Desplat‘s score is pleasant and Robbie Ryan‘s cinematography is strong in many ways, but most impressive is his use of Super 16 for the recreated archival footage used throughout. For the longest time it was impossible to tell if it was authentic footage being used or not.

Audiences are going to fall in love with this film and with The Weinstein Co. backing it there is no limit to how well it will do at the box office and certainly during the upcoming awards season. But beyond the business and awards side of things, it’s simply a great human story told with fantastic care for the characters at the heart of the film. As evil as some of the roads the story travels may be, Philomena doesn’t dwell on negativity… it’s title character won’t allow it.

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