DVD Release Date: April 15, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: November 22, 2013 limited; expands throughout November and December.
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, thematic elements, and sexual references)
Run Time: 98 min
Directors: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Michelle Fairley, Anna Maxwell Martin
Prepare to be overwhelmed – especially if you're a mother.
As a man, I've had difficulty in times past understanding the concept of "having a good cry." What’s good about feeling that sad? And why would people say they occasionally need one, even to the point of actively seeking it out? Well with age and experience, I've come to understand. Yes, a good cry can involve sadness, but it's much more rich than that.
A good cry helps us to process our wounds, activate our empathy, and serve as a cathartic cleanse. Sappy movies elicit cheap cries, not good ones. A good-cry movie is honest, not always pleasant, but deeply necessary – and healing. Philomena is "a good cry" movie, wrought by a performance from Judi Dench that could win her a second Oscar. And it’s based on a true story. Like I said – prepare yourself.
Philomena Lee (Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is an elderly Irish woman who, in the early 2000s, went on a search to find her son Anthony whom she had borne out of wedlock. At the age of two, he had been forcibly taken from her and given up for adoption. She has not seen or heard from him in the fifty years since.
Her unlikely ally is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, The Other Guys), a former BBC reporter turned government official who was caught up in the wake of a scandal not of his making. Unjustly disgraced, Sixsmith returns to reportage and book writing when, at a dinner party, Philomena Lee lands on his radar.
Sixsmith and Philomena are polar opposites, especially on issues of faith. He's agnostic (leaning toward atheist); she's a devout Catholic. Furthermore, Sixsmith's innate contempt for "human interest stories" causes him to brush off Philomena's plight before his desperate need for work – and keen interest from an editor – brings him back to it.
Complicating matters is the role a convent played in the loss of little Anthony, a fact that Sixsmith and Philomena are of two different minds on how to deal with – in part because Philomena feels personally responsible for legally consenting to the action, albeit under extreme duress by strict disciplinarian nuns. Sixsmith sees injustice; Philomena only feels guilt, and their opposing views on faith and the Church further color their differences on how to move forward.
Their search takes an unexpected turn early on, upending an outcome that the misanthropic Sixsmith believed to be a foregone conclusion (he'd already written out the whole sappy story in his mind). From there, they don't have a clue where this journey will take them, nor do we. Along the way, Martin and Philomena often find themselves discussing and debating God. The film doesn't answer the God questions it raises (which also broach one character's sexual orientation) but rather shows how two different people imperfectly reconcile those tensions.
Indeed, just when it seems this will be yet another liberal prosecution of religion, it gives equal credence to and a sincere expression of Philomena's faith. This film is as much an indictment on the sins of the Church as it is the cynicism of the agnostic. It has an honest eye (the perceptive and thoughtful screenplay was co-authored by Coogan himself), making deliberate references to nuns who were as Christ-like and compassionate as others were cruel.
Character-wise, this is a very refreshing turn on the "odd couple" formula. The dynamic between Philomena and Martin is not fueled by how they clash (though they do at times) but rather their gentle respect for each other, despite their differences. Martin in particular, a very jaded man, regards Philomena with sincere affection even when it goes against his impulse to do so. He wants his story, but he's intentional to not lose sight of the fact that this is her story, and her heart – not his.
Martin is direct, at times callous, but Coogan imbues him with an ingratiating sensitivity. It’s a performance calibrated by nuances. But it’s Dench who will charm you one minute and break your heart the next. Her Philomena is a sweet, tender soul, but also fragile. She's facing her lifelong guilt, a repressed shame, her fears, and not knowing what she will receive in return for the risk she’s taking.
And that face – it truly is a mother’s face. Through her eyes, her smile, her look, we see Philomena’s maternal spirit, an enigmatic mix of anxiety and hope. We feel her longing, her hunger, at any hint of detail about her son – how he might have smiled, stood, appeared, or sounded. A mere shred of information sparks both joy and desperation for more, for anything that would make him known to her (she confesses, "I'd like to know if Anthony thought of me…because I've thought of him every day"). Dench's portrayal goes through the ringer and takes us along with her, and yet we’re grateful for having been invited into something so raw and personal.
Director Stephen Frears has become exceptionally adept at crafting intimate female portraits, most notably through Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen. He guides Philomena with equal care, insight, and emotional scope. This is a work of deep compassion, with touches of good humor.
Though the film makes no mention of it, it’s worth noting the derivations of the name Philomena: not only was it the name of an early saint and martyr, but its linguistic origins come from the Greek word meaning "loved." Those are fitting signifiers for the Philomena we see here, and to join such a person on her most vulnerable journey is an inspiring, courage-building experience.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Beer, liquor, and wine are consumed on various occasions. No drunkenness.
- Language/Profanity: Four F-words (two are variants due to a sharp Irish accent). Two S-words. Slang “T” word for breasts. The medical C-word for a part of female genitalia. Verbally abusive and cruel statements made to young women by older women in authority.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A few moments of gay kissing, others of straight kissing. People discuss sex, the differing moralities about sex, about promiscuous sex (but as a topic, not in graphic detail). A character is gay, homosexuality is discussed. Condoms are referenced in the context of a sex discussion. A teenage young man and woman kiss passionately. A teen girl is pregnant, out of wedlock.
- Violence/Other: Cruel and mentally abusive treatment of single, unwed mothers by strict nuns. God and religion are debated from opposite perspectives.
Publication date: December 6, 2013