March 23, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 41°F


Review: Vibrant cast shines in witty true story


Directed by Stephen Frears

It has been 50 years since an elderly Irish Catholic woman has seen her son, who doesn’t even know she exists. In another magnificent performance by Judi Dench, “Philomena” explores the powerful, true story of one woman finding the son she has never known.

After having a child out of wedlock, a teenaged Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is sent to a convent in Ireland where she can only see her son, Anthony, in the convent day care for an hour each day. But when she learns an American family adopts Anthony without her knowledge, Philomena is overcome with sadness, anger and a yearning to reunite with him.

Fifty years later, an elderly Philomena (Dench) finally divulges her experiences in the convent to her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), after having kept them a secret all this time. Jane then pairs her with an ex-BBC reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin agrees to help her find her son in order to reinvigorate his writing career, but he is reluctant at first because the story seems simply like “human-interest.” But as the two embark on a journey from Europe to the United States to find Anthony, Martin realizes her story is far more meaningful than expected.

Writers Coogan and Jeff Pope portray the Catholic nuns in Philomena’s convent as demonic and sadistic. When Philomena gives birth, the nuns forgo giving her anesthesia in order for her to repent for her sins. When the baby arrives, the midwife says, unemotionally, “It’s in God’s hands now,” with poor attempts to help the hysterical teenager. The tension between Philomena and the nuns will make audiences cringe and sympathize with Philomena as the nuns watch her suffer in pain.

Coogan and Pope create a darling chemistry between Martin and Philomena. Though the movie is a drama, Coogan still manages to add bits of his notorious sarcastic comedy into his characters. While Philomena bores Martin in the car with long synopses of several romance novels she has read, he can barely pretend to care. Dench’s sweet naivety juxtaposes his sardonic demeanor in this scene, creating a mother-son-like dynamic between the two as they spend more time together.

While the character development is sweet and gratifying, the storyline tends to drag. Director Stephen Frears makes this 95-minute film feel hours longer than it is through the the pair’s travels to visit places Anthony has lived and speak to people who have known him. However, he takes a story that doesn’t seem original on the surface and adds twists and turns that bring the audience to an emotional high.

Dench’s flawless performance steals the show. Her portrayal of the innocent yet wise Philomena steers this film toward potential Oscar glory, especially when she finds out more information about what happened to Anthony, who had since been renamed Michael Hess (Sean Mahon). After finding out about Anthony’s homosexuality, despite his position as an official in the Reagan administration, Philomena becomes interested in hearing about his life, especially whether or not he ever tried to find her.

One exciting moment takes place during Martin and Philomena’s trip to their final destination, the convent in which Philomena lived. The pair encounters Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), the only nun Philomena had known while she lived there, in a stoic yet shocking reunion that drives the story toward its ending.

With endearing chemistry and a wildly fanciful story, “Philomena” is a film that will bring smiles to audience members faces, as well as a renewed appreciation for their relationships with friends and family.