Review of “Philomena”

Philomena is a 2013 drama directed by Stephen Frears, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty Year Search by journalist Martin Sixsmith.

It stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, and tells the true story of Philomena Lee‘s 50-year-long search for her forcibly adopted son, and Sixsmith’s efforts to help her find him. I thought it was one of the most moving and profound films I have seen in years. 

It garnered a number of awards including Coogan and Jeff Pope winning Best Screenplay at the 70th Venice International Film Festival.[3][4][5] It was awarded the People’s Choice Award Runner-Up prize at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[6] The film was nominated in four categories at the 86th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Coogan and Pope, Best Actress for Dench, and Best Original Score for Desplat. It was also nominated for four BAFTA Awards and three Golden Globe Awards.

It received a rating of 92% based on reviews from 170 critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while at Metacritic it received a score of 76 based on 41 reviews, indicating  near”universal acclaim.” Stephen Holden  of the New York Times described the film as “so quietly moving that it feels lit from within.” He also wrote:

Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety. It also has a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church’s oppression and punishment of unmarried sex … with homophobia and the United States government’s reluctance to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

One of the negative reviews of the film came from, not surprisingly, the New York Post‍ ’s film critic Kyle Smith, who has accused several other films that were produced by Weinstein of anti-Catholicism, including The Magdalene Sisters (2002), The Butcher Boy (1998), and Priest (1995), all critically acclaimed movies.[19] Smith who has been dubbed “America’s most cantankerous film critic” by The Atlantic magazine,[4]  wrote that Philomena is “another hateful and boring attack on Catholics.”[16] He called it “90 minutes of organized hate.”

However, the real Philomena Lee, herself a practicing Catholic, responded to Smith in an open letter that began:[17]

Your review of the movie paints its story as being a condemnation of Catholicism and conservative views. It states that the relationship depicted between Mr. Martin Sixsmith and myself comes across as contrived and trite, and funny for all the wrong reasons. Forgive me for saying so, Kyle, but you are incorrect … The story it tells has resonated with people not because it’s some mockery of ideas or institutions that they’re in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.

And speaking directly to the critic, she says:

Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack. It is a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children, something that I’ve found time and distance have no bearing on. It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it. It is also a testament to the fact that no matter how old we grow, there is always a chance we will meet someone, however different from us, that might impact our views on humanity and help guide us on a new, if perhaps unforeseen, path.

She concludes:

Once again, let me state that all in all, Stephen, Martin and I have been incredibly fortunate in receiving such a warm response to the movie. Not everyone has to love it, or take much away from it, but I speak on behalf of all of us in saying that what we don’t want is its message to be misinterpreted. You are entitled to an opinion of course, as we all are. Just as I forgave the church for what happened with my son, I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story. I do hope though that the families heading to the movie theatre to see the film decide for themselves—and disagree with you. Sincerely, Philomena Lee

Lee’s response to Smith exemplifies truth and love standing up to lies and hate. The film didn’t take a black-and-white approach to religion. In fact, Dench’s character remains religious despite the injustices heaped upon her by Catholicism—injustices that are a matter of historical record. She also has sophisticated, although from my perspective inadequate, responses to Coogan’s character’s attack on her religious belief. From my perspective, the film goes much too easy on religion, but that’s because the film is not a simple “good guys vs. bad guys” film.

I reiterate it is one of the more profoundly moving films I’ve ever seen in a long while.

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4 thoughts on “Review of “Philomena”

  1. I’m adding this to my movie queue immediately. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it as I dismissed it the first time it came across my radar.

  2. Philomena Lee’s comment on this film about her life is, I think, the most relevant of all the critiques I have read. Those who see an attack of one kind or another are mistaking the part for the whole…as if the context of her life trials and challenges were the primary intent in telling this story. It was apparent that, as Lee said “my story is meant to be a testament to good things.” Besides, cinematic diatribes are just not successful in drawing the majority people away from Netflix to the box office.

  3. I wanted to ask you this for a long time but didn’t want to add to the pile of work you do every day. Is it possible to add a tap on your website titled “Good Movies” just like the one for books? I hope it is not too much to ask. We enjoy your taste in movies.

  4. Hi

    I appreciate the suggestion. In fact, after reviewing Philomena it occurred to me to do just that. So perhaps we’re on the same wave length. Ok, I think I’ll get right on it and try to put that up in the next few days.

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