Review: Philomena (Frears, 2013)

Still from the movie Philomena

I had no idea what to expect from this film before I watched it. All I knew was that it took place in Britain/Ireland and that my father thought highly of it. (“It should win the Oscar for sure, I think. Of the ones I’ve seen it’s the best. American Hustle? Naaaaah. What else is there? Nebraska was okay. That woman, what’s her name? Judi…? Right, I think she’ll win Best Actress. It’s a very touching movie. You know it’s based on a real story? Your mother asked me, ‘Will it be sad? I don’t want to watch a sad movie.’ I said, ‘Forget a tissue; bring a tissue box!'”)

If you haven’t already heard, Philomena is based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith, a disgraced cabinet member from Tony Blair‘s administration and also a former BBC reporter. At the start of the film, Philomena Lee is an elderly Irish lady living in Britain who decides to embark on a search for her son. All she knows is that her Anthony, born out of wedlock and delivered at a convent, was adopted nearly half a century ago by another family. Along the way, she is joined by a journalist (Sixsmith himself) who proposes to help her in exchange for writing a story based on her experience. The ensuing interactions between the salt-of-the-earth Philomena and the hoity-toity Oxford-graduated Sixsmith are the emotional heart of the film. If the audience sometimes dares to laugh at Philomena’s commonness, it also takes exception to Sixsmith’s snobbery. In the end, Philomena (the person and the movie) wins everyone over. Don’t we all love watching spunky old ladies?

It is a straightforward story, told straightforwardly, precisely the type of movie to appeal to my father, who I imagine immensely enjoyed the exchanges between Philomena and Martin. As such, you won’t find anything here to blow your mind, but you will be entertained, you will be involved, you will wonder, Could that have really happened? (Well, unsurprisingly, it didn’t exactly happen as the movie shows it, but most of the important facts seem right. Not, however, the depiction of Philomena, nor her relationship with Martin Sixsmith.)

And Judi Dench is brilliant. Usually she plays such hard, almost androgynous characters, so it was amazing to watch her transform into the kindly Mrs. Lee. The casting choice of Dench was probably instrumental in making Philomena an enjoyable film, just as Cate Blanchett (just barely) salvaged Blue Jasmine from the trash heap of Woody Allen’s other movies. Dench’s Philomena is simultaneously obtuse, charming, and steely. If Sixsmith was lucky to find the real life Philomena, we are equally lucky to have Dench bring her to life for the rest of us. Philomena is a delight.