REVIEW: “Philomena”


When making a movie based on an emotionally-charged true story there are certain obstacles and temptations that filmmakers must avoid. Time after time we’ve seen movies succumb to dizzying melodrama and cheap emotional tugs. Actors and actresses sometimes go big which can drown out the true heart of their characters. But some films get it right. They balance grounded emotion with smart and crisp storytelling. For the most part “Philomena” is one of the films that gets it right.

“Philomena” tells the touching true story of Philomena Lee and her search to find her son after 50 years of separation. The unquenchable Judi Dench plays this mother who is haunted by thoughts and visions of her long-lost son which drives her to find him. Her daughter introduces her to a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in hopes that he will investigate and tell her remarkable but heartbreaking story. But he’s not without baggage. He was recently unfairly fired from a government position and his journalism career is floundering. He thinks a human interest story is beneath him but he takes it and hoping of getting back on track.


We learn Philomena’s story along with Martin. Through flashbacks we see that a young Philomena was left at a convent in Ireland by her father after she becomes pregnant. Later on the sisters force her to work seven days a week in a hot laundry room as some sort of twisted act of penance. They allow her and other mothers to see their children once a day but then, without the mother’s consent, they give the children up for adoption. This is what happened to her son. Philomena and Martin’s search begins at the convent and eventually takes them to the United States.

While this is a story of a mother searching for son, it’s also about two very different individuals who form an unlikely friendship. Along the way they have many fascinating conversations that pull the curtain back and reveal more about them. For example Martin is sour and cynical while Philomena is gentle and optimistic. There are also reoccurring discussions on faith. Martin sees faith and the belief in God as pointless. Philomena finds strength in her faith and it permeates every part of her being. Their discussions never fall into sermonizing. They feel natural and believable.

Steve Coogan is mostly known for his comedic work but this is unquestionably a serious role. There is some good humor in the film which works really well, but most of it comes at Philomena’s expense. Coogan mostly plays everything straight and he is fantastic. I’ve often overlooked and underappreciated Steve Coogan as an actor. This performance makes me a true believer. And as expected Dench is amazing. She is such a wonderful actress and she works with an effortless brilliance. In this film she tells more in a close-up expression than some can say with two pages of dialogue. Needless to say her Oscar nomination is well deserved.


Unfortunately Philomena isn’t criticism proof. Despite all of its strengths, there are moments where the script stumbles or Stephen Frears’ direction undermines the great performances. Most of the film’s emotion is earned, but there are tearjerker moments that feel a bit staged. The script also tosses in some glaring ham-fisted political jabs. They come out of the blue without an ounce of smarts or subtlety behind them. These quibbles may not seem major but they are a distraction.

Still “Philomena” is quite the story. While several dramatic liberties were taken with the actual true account, most of them help make this a better film. There are a few missteps and personally there are several films I would rather see get a Best Picture Oscar nomination. But “Philomena” features two sparkling performances and enough humor and heart to win me over.


41 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Philomena”

  1. Good review Keith. My review of this film was sort of like what you said, except a bit more negative. I had my reasons, but to see why and hopefully understand, just read my review. I could get caught-up in a conversation about this for days.

  2. I agree with the comment about the unnecessary political jabs. The story is really one of faith and love in the face of a bureaucratic nightmare mentality. The orphanage policies are reprehensible, and yet Philomena is not filled with hate, just regret. I had no problem with the sudden emotional chain yanking. It felt earned to me. Cogan shows us the other side of that mindset and how a little humility and genuine feeling can made us better.

    • Great words. Always appreciate your comments. Faith is definitely a strong thread woven throughout the film. And the ending really defines it for the audience. I really liked that. As I mentioned in the review, I too think most of the emotion is earned. There were just a handful of scenes that I thought were a little on the nose. Still I quite liked this flick.

  3. I rather enjoyed this film, even if it’s a bit of a tear-jerker. Coogan has always been one of my favourites, and this really helps solidify his talent to those who don’t recognize his talent. Beautifully written, so Oscar nom deserved there and Dench is a heart-stopper as well. Completely agree, “Philomena” isn’t without its faults, but they are too minuscule that it’s easy to overlook. Excellent post, Keith!

    • Thanks man! As I mentioned in the review I had never given Steve Coogan much attention when it comes to his acting. He really got my attention here. It’s such a pitch-perfect performance. And as I wrote, Judi Dench has an effortless brilliance. Those two were just great.

    • Thanks a bunch! I agree with you 110%. It’s a good movie but certainly not one of the 9 best. Of course it doesn’t have a shot to win Best Picture but I would still like to see several other movies nominated ahead of yet.

      Thanks for the comments. Always appreciated.

  4. I reviewed this film, as well, and while the points we discussed were different, I think we both feel the same way about the movie (well, you might like it a bit more than I do).

    It’s a good film. That’s the problem, though. It’s good and not great. It has a great story to tell with Philomena, and it is also making more aware of some of the darker sides of the church’s past (their cruel adoption methods). But it’s not Best Picture worthy.

    I think Coogan and Dench each do a good job, but I thought the standout performance was Sophie Kennedy Clark (who played young Philomena). Clark was so lovable in the flashbacks, but she could also be incredibly heart-wrenching. The scene where they take her son away is fantastic.

    Anyway, good review. Glad to know others feel the same way about the movie.

    • Great point about Clark. She really was good, wasn’t she? I think you’re exactly right. This is a good movie, but certainly not a great one. The part you mentioned about the church angered some people. But I think the film separates the practices of the Abbey with true genuine faith. They are walking a tight rope but I think they pull it off nicely.

      Thanks for the great comments. I plan on stopping by and checking out your review in detail.

  5. Nice review man. Think I liked this a little more than you, gave it a 4.5, but glad you got something out of it. The political stuff didn’t really bother me, I think it’s inevitable some politics will end up in a film with such subject matter. It’s a little manipulative at times, but overall I thought it was great. I was a little surprised to see it get a best picture nomination, but so glad that Dench did, she was fantastic.

    • Thanks man. Dench was her usual brilliant self. The real revelation for me was Steve Coogan. I had wrongly dismissed him as an actor in the past. He really shows the chops here. As for the politics, it’s not so much an issue of it being present. It’s how obvious and poorly written it is. There’s one line in particular that had me rolling my eyes and saying “are you kidding me” out loud.

  6. The theme of faith is really intriguing, I’m very curious about this one because of it and of course Judi Dench is one of my all time fave actress. That’s nice to hear the conversation didn’t become like you said ‘sermonizing’ or preachy, I’m more interested in an honest discussion between believers and non-believers. Interesting topic by Steve Coogan whom I usually see as a comedian as well.

    • Faith is handled in an interesting way. The conversations were definitely intriguing and I like how the different perspectives of faith showed themselves in the demeanors of the characters (Did that make any sense? LOL). That being said, I have read where some from the Catholic Church have taken offense. To be honest I can see where they would. Personally, I believe the films wraps up the faith discussion nicely. I would REALLY love to hear your particular thoughts on it.

      As for Judi Dench, as I wrote she is just effortlessly brilliant. Once again you won’t be disappointed. How can anyone not love her?

  7. Nice review. I’m surprised how much attention this received from the Oscars. I haven’t seen this yet, but it never really created much buzz in critics’ circles that the nominations sort of caught me off guard.

    • Thanks a lot. It’s a nice movie but it’s certainly not what I would call Best Picture material. The two lea performances are stellar and Dench deserves her nomination.

  8. I enjoyed the film more than you did, it made me cry to so much. I also just read that the home videos seen throughout the film wee mostly real, which only makes it more moving. I think Coogan was robbed at the Oscars – he was so wonderful. And it was great to see Michelle Fairley from Game of Thrones as his editor.

    • Coogan was fantastic. As I mentioned in the review, I had dismissed him in the past. MY MISTAKE. He showed he is a legitimate actor in Philomena and would have loved to see him get a nomination for his work.

    • Shamefully I haven’t given Coogan much appreciation as an actor. This changed my feeling about him completely. I’m not real familiar with his full body of work but now I feel I need to see more of his movies.

  9. Fine review bro. I’d totally agree here and 3.5 sounds about right too. Good film, I liked it quite a bit. The story itself was extraordinary as was Dench’s performance but it became a bit laboured and repetitive.

      • Not sure if you’re familiar with his comedy shows but his tv work can often be hilarious. However, I’ve never really taken to him as a serious actor. He doesn’t really do it for me but I have to admit that he was really good here.

      • I remember him from when I was you and he used to do some stand up comic routines, playing different characters and he was really good. Comedy is his strong point but occasionally he can deliver as decent dramatic role. This is Philomena is probably the strongest I’ve seen him.

  10. This film was such a surprise to me — so much better and heartfelt than I expected. So glad you liked Coogan, too, I thought he was great, and Judi Dench as well. Great review, Keith!

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I did like the movie. Coogan and Dench were the highlights for me. I was all onboard especially in the first half. But I felt things got a little heavy-handed in the second half. That ultimately brought it down a bit for me. Still I did enjoy the movie. Dench is pure brilliance anytime she is on screen.

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