Great Movies: Philomena (2013)

By Christian DiMartino

A lot of times, a movie is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and is soon forgotten, whereas other movies that had an actual following don’t receive their recognition become more beloved over time. Take a movie like The Theory of Everything– in every way, a decent movie, yet there’s really no need to revisit it. Stephen Frears’ Philomena appears to be one of those Best Picture nominees that either nobody talks about, or its existence has been forgotten. Well, I’m here to tell you that it shouldn’t be.

It had been about six years or so since I’d last seen Philomena, which was really good when I saw it in 2013, but it was probably my least favorite of the Best Picture nominees that year (it was an amazingly stacked year that featured Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Her, and Captain Philips. After revisiting it, it’s time to move it up a few spaces, which is crazy because all of those movies are pretty great. So is Philomena, which really hit me hard upon a rewatch.

Yeah, this movie basically wrecked me. Philomena is both an upper and a downer. A wonderful film that wastes no time shattering your heart, and with a lot of Oscar bait, it isn’t earned. With Philomena, it is, because Frears is no dummy. A two time Oscar nominee for The Queen and The Grifters, some might say that, with the power of Alexandre Desplat’s lovely score, Frears is out to manipulate emotions out of you. This is not the case though, because here is a movie that earns your sympathy from the second you meet its heroine, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in her last great role to date) and her past trauma is established. We feel for this woman; anyone with a beating heart would. Yet the deeper and deeper you get entangled into Philomena, the more you find yourself not only angry and upset, but also moved by the spirit of a woman who, despite the hand she was dealt, kept her faith.

So, to explain. The film tells the story of Philomena, an Irish woman who lived in a convent and had a child out of wedlock. The nuns essentially shamed her, and seeing as this was a “sin,” they had no trouble taking her child, at about age five, and giving him away. Some 50 years later, Philomena (now played by Dench) is of course haunted by all of this, but neglected to tell a soul this entire time. Once she reveals it to her adult daughter, she meets a disgruntled journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and sees if he could possibly help find her lost son.

Sixsmith and Lee couldn’t be more different. Despite her troubled past, she remains upbeat and cheery; Sixsmith pretty much hates humanity, and really didn’t want to take on this story because he isn’t one for “human interest” stories. He does anyways though, at the insistence of his boss, and Martin and Philomena head off to America in search of her son. While it has been seven years, and usually I lift the “spoiler alert” restrictions after about five, where the rest of the story goes will not be revealed.

Why? Simple, because Philomena tells a pretty incredible story. It’s the kind of corker that one couldn’t simply just make up, and yet you wish they had because the fact that this all actually happened is rather disturbing to me. As if having your child taken away from you, at the hand of religion, isn’t horrible enough, wait til you see the rest of the movie. Really, it will shock you. This is a film that will upset you- watching it last week, there were tears on the surface at least 75% of the time. It will anger you too, but by the end, it will do both, but also move you.

Dench is really marvelous here. Whether she’s giddily discussing the premise of Big Momma’s House (yes, this is all in the same movie) or her heart is breaking, she never misses a beat. She plays beautifully off of Coogan too, considering that they’re two actors with very little in common. Kind of like Martin and Philomena, and what’s interesting about Martin is the fact that, despite his bitter disdain for humanity, he manages to really take interest in Philomena’s story, and even finds himself more involved than she is at times. Who, with red blood flowing in their veins, wouldn’t?

Those who haven’t seen Philomena definitely should, and with a tissue or two. Those who are due for a revisit should probably take said visit, because it’s probably better than you remember. This film did a number on me, and I hope it does a number on you.

Four Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Score

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