Plot: Based on a true story, a once successful journalist (Steve Coogan) reluctantly takes on a human interest story, assisting Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) in tracking down her long lost son, whom she was forced to give up for adoption decades ago when living in a convent.
Philomena is simply a pleasure to watch, with no fat to trim. It’s a tight story about two unlikely people bonding over the course of a few weeks. It’s almost like a weird buddy comedy. But despite its humor, Philomena is a drama in every sense of the word. At its heart is Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, and her long lost search for her child who she hasn’t seen since he was three. Yup. Get those tissues ready, it’s one of those films.
As Philomena gathers more and more information about her son throughout the movie, the audience is put through an endurance test. But it’s the relationship between Philomena and Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith where the film really started to hook me. These two people could not be more different. Sixsmith doesn’t even want to be here. He’s the ultimate cynic doing a human interest piece. As him and Philomena travel around together, the old lady is constantly talking and annoying him. It’s really funny to watch Coogan’s character fighting to be polite. She’s almost a female version of Grampa Simpson. We’ve all experienced those times where we have to indulge the elderly, and Philomena captures that beautifully.
But the real heart of their relationship is that Philomena has every right to be cynical and harsh, and despite some of her frosty dialogue, she’s actually one of the more forgiving and positive people you can imagine, while Sixsmith is the exact opposite. One of the biggest elements to this film is the portrayal of the nuns, and them forcing Philomena to give up her son for adoption. Seriously, this movie makes no bones about it, and treats nuns as fricking super villains. Sixsmith wants to scream and yell and make trouble for these nuns, but it’s Philomena who usually talks him down, when she’s the one who has every right to be upset. I found this a fascinating aspect to not only their relationship, but to the entire film in general.
What makes their chemistry work so well though are the performances. Coogan is perfect. Sixsmith is a bit of a jackass, but you definitely like him, and certainly understand his point of view. The real stand out though is of course Judi Dench, who I think has 987 Oscar nominations. When she’s required to be funny and have quippy dialogue, she delivers in spades, but it’s her emotional performance that will truly leave you thinking about the film long after it ends. Dench has to react to a lot of heartbreaking moments, and she is extremely powerful in these scenes, especially at the very end. Without question, Dench gives one of the better performances of the year.
Philomena tugs at the heartstrings, and also keeps you guessing as major plot points come into the film very early on. Aside from the great chemistry between Dench and Coogan, it’s discovering what Philomena truly wants from this whole experience as the film goes on, and that’s where the movie really hits hard.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)