AFI 2013 Review: Philomena


What’s with all the 6.5’s at AFI Fest? Well, it’s Oscar season and this is a place to premiere a lot of contenders. These movies may be quite good but can tend to be a little obvious, and hey, I didn’t get to review Her which was the next level showcase. Philomena was a perfectly good movie. It’s solid. I just didn’t love it.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a disgraced journalist because of an e-mail from which he was misquoted. He meets Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who as a young woman got pregnant out of wedlock. The nuns at a convent took her son away for adoption, and now she wants to find him. Sixsmith takes Philomena to America to write his own comeback story about reuniting her with her long lost son.

It’s a mystery, it’s a journalists’ redemption, it’s a mother’s heartbreak, all with a dry British deadpan that works. We laugh at the awkward exchanges and tonal shifts, the sarcasm that rears up during an emotional conversation. Philomena is a delightful character, or maybe that’s Dench being delightful, but clearly pained too, or maybe that’s Dench bringing the gravitas. Director Stephen Frears has struck this tone before, so I’ll give him credit for being skilled at it too.

Philomena wants to watch Big Momma’s House on pay-per-view. That’s cute, although the timing is off. This takes place after 9/11 so they wouldn’t still be showing Big Momma’s House 1. The year may have even coincided with the sequel. Don’t challenge Franchise Fred on this. I guess some hotels have catalog pay-per-view movies too.

Besides Big Momma’s, Philomena worries about the broad strokes she knows about American culture, having grown up secluded in a convent. Her worries about American obesity is indicative of her innocent character. You also get to hear Dame Judi Dench talk about sex and the clitoris. To buy tickets to Philomena, please check Fandango or your preferred movie ticket retailer.

A lot of the story is a back and forth. The search for Philomena’s son is on again and off again several times as Philomena changes her mind. That’s real emotion, it makes us indecisive, so I can’t fault them for that. Who knows if that was the real Philomena or just a convenient screenwriting adaptation to keep the dramatic momentum going?

Coogan is also very good as this desperate and angry journalist. He doesn’t seem sleazy, like he’s using Philomena, although he gets a bit short with her whimsical interruptions. He has genuine anger over what the convent did to Philomena, so we can relate to his outrage.

However, the point of the movie is that forgiveness still matters, and I’m down with that. Even a champion of justice could maybe see that Sixsmith’s anger is disproportionate, but simple indignity is not quite right either, so can you do better than righteousness? If Philomena can forgive…

I like the message of Philomena and I enjoyed the mystery of piecing together clues about the son’s whereabouts. It made me laugh and smile, and sympathize with the dramatic realizations. It doesn’t quite feel organic, in the way that most biographies, even those covering specific time periods, struggle to function as a movie. I wouldn’t steer anyone away from it though and I wouldn’t have a problem seeing Dench or Coogan in their respective categories come February. 


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.