Philomena is a real woman’s story of her 50 year long journey to find the son that got snatched away from her as a young woman. It’s also a contender for many Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actress for Judi Dench. I’ve heard lots of good things about it and even the owner of my local arthouse has been raving about it so I thought I’d give it a chance despite hearing a small summary of the film and not being too interested. Steve Coogan and Dench form an unlikely but charming duo and deliver some great performances. The story is fascinating in itself, but my attitude towards the film is a little indifferent. If the film were released pre-Oscar season than I’m not sure it would have gotten the same attention it has now. It had some great acting and good writing but overall the film seems to lack the emotional punch that it potentially could have had.
Philomena Lee (Dench) got pregnant at a young age and was consequently sent off to a special school run by nuns. She gave birth but was forced to stay and work off the cost of her being taken care of there. One day, however, the nuns adopt out her son to another couple without telling Philomena. 50 years later she shares this burden of a secret with her daughter, who then seeks out a journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), to write about it. At first Sixsmith is hesitant about taking on the story (he doesn’t do human interest pieces), but being recently fired from his job, decides he could use the work. Philomena and Sixsmith then embark on an emotional journey together to discover the whereabouts of her estranged son.
Judi Dench is really the highlight of Philomena. She seems to totally embody who Philomena is and gives us a very multi-dimensional character. Philomena has suffered an immense amount of pain but still has a huge heart and is easy to forgive. She takes delight in reading subpar romance novels but still exhibits a great amount of wisdom. She seems to be both happy and sad, much like the mood of the movie. She is an incredibly diverse woman and Dench brings her to life on the screen. And then there is Coogan, who also delivers a good performance with his quips of dry humor and whose presence keeps the story very grounded. Together the two make an endearing on screen duo and successfully carry this story full circle.
An opening title card will remind the audience that this film was based off of a true story. Often times movie adaptations of real stories come off as so melodramatic that they just don’t feel real anymore. Thankfully, this was not the case in Philomena. Coogan, also the guy behind the screenplay of the movie, approached the script in such a way that emotions never felt staged or unrealistic. At the same time I found that although the story itself is very emotional that the film failed to deliver those emotions. I never felt truly invested in this woman’s journey despite the great performance by Dench. At a certain point in the movie you feel the story plateau and in this case the movie probably could have done with just a little more dramatic tension to keep the feel of urgency going.
In the end, this film wasn’t disappointing but it didn’t blow me away either. Everything is technically great from the acting, to the writing, to the cinematography, to the score. Judi Dench delivers a solid performance as a multi-faceted and incredibly bold woman searching for the son that she tragically lost. I don’t think she’ll beat out Cate Blanchett for Best Actress at the Oscars this Sunday but it was a performance I loved seeing from her. Steve Coogan also delivers on-screen as the man who undergoes some personal growth as Philomena’s story slowly becomes his. Off screen, however, the script was slightly lacking as this highly riveting story starts off slowly and never really picks up. Considered one of the best movies of 2013, it is definitely worth the watch. But just like Philomena isn’t an incredibly happy or sad film, I didn’t find it either amazing or disappointing.