'Philomena' (2013) Movie Review - Toronto Film Festival

Philomena movie review
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

If the real Philomena Lee is anything like the character written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope and portrayed by Judi Dench in Stephen Frears' Philomena it instantly makes the world a better place. Her very nature makes this film as uplifting, moving, funny and heartfelt as it is.

Based on the 2009 book written by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, Philomena traces the story of an aging Irish woman as she's aided by Sixsmith to track down the son she had to give up 50 years earlier when she was only a teenager at the convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary. The search follows a path you won't soon expect and as each page of the story is written you find yourself increasingly invested in what they find.

Grade: A

Philomena"Philomena" is a The Weinstein Co. release, directed by Stephen Frears and is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references. The running time is .

The cast includes Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Mare Winningham, Michelle Fairley and Charlie Murphy.

Coogan stars as Martin, bringing his particular dry sense of humor and wit to a character that may in fact be over-matched by Judi Dench in the title role. Philomena Lee is portrayed as a bit of a no-nonsense spitfire. As she learns details about her son, some that may be considered shameful by people her age, she shows no worries, only love for the son she finally hopes to be reunited with.

Even after she and Martin are essentially shooed away following their first visit to the convent, hoping for any details that would aid them in their search, she recounts how great the sex was with the young man that impregnated her all those years ago saying in her sweet Irish accent, "Thing is, I didn't even know I had a clitoris Martin." Coogan's eyes widen and Philomena has the audience in the palm of her hand.

It's a line like this that proves to be the key to this movie. Not only is Philomena a sympathetic victim, she's a person, and the film treats and respects her as such. She's a ball of life that has never given up and opposite Martin's cynicism, the audience is offered the opportunity to experience a range of emotions as anger and forgiveness battle for the moral high ground.

Frears has been on a bit of a downhill slide as of late. I avoided Lay the Favorite because I hadn't heard a single positive thing said about it and neither Tamara Drewe or Cheri were exactly stunners. Not since The Queen has he delivered a film this proficient and in many ways it bests that film which eventually won Helen Mirren her only Oscar along with five other nominations.

For all intents and purposes, Philomena is a drama, but it's use of humor keeps it bursting with energy in-between the more emotional moments, but it's not "ha ha" humor. These aren't jokes and punchlines as much as they are natural moments of every day life, comments meant to lighten the mood or merely Philomena speaking to a Mexican chef at a buffet bar and remarking on how much she likes nachos. It's through this approach I feel comfortable referring to the two leads simply as Martin and Philomena. You get to know these two, not because of personal details revealed through establishing their character's back-stories, but merely by spending time with them.

That said, Coogan is great as Martin, but it's Dench that truly stands out as a woman of strength and worldly wisdom well beyond her years. Philomena's faith in God guides her and religion plays heavily on the story as it naturally would given the involvement of the abbey at Roscrea, but also given Martin's beliefs or lack thereof. Like I said, the screenplay affords the audience the opportunity to see each and every scene from two vantage points and the strong-willed nature of both Philomena and Martin create an emotional balance that's really hard to achieve in cinema. A lot of credit certainly goes to Frears and the performances, but Coogan and Pope's screenplay deserves just as much attention.

Coogan's writing career has largely involved smaller projects and teleplays and the same goes for Pope, but they certainly tapped into something special with this story and all the right talent came together to bring it to life.

Frears puts his trust in his actors, as he should. Alexandre Desplat's score is pleasant and Robbie Ryan's cinematography is strong in many ways, but most impressive is his use of Super 16 for the recreated archival footage used throughout. For the longest time it was impossible to tell if it was authentic footage being used or not.

Audiences are going to fall in love with this film and with The Weinstein Co. backing it there is no limit to how well it will do at the box office and certainly during the upcoming awards season. But beyond the business and awards side of things, it's simply a great human story told with fantastic care for the characters at the heart of the film. As evil as some of the roads the story travels may be, Philomena doesn't dwell on negativity... it's title character won't allow it.


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  • http://www.smartfilm.blogspot.com SmartFilm

    You're getting a fantastic track record over there in TIFF. A's are flying around like bullets. Gets me really pumped for films to come.

  • IngmarTheBergman

    Yeah, I thought this would be good, but not THAT good. I'm glad your enjoying TIFF, Brad!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    When I first heard the synopsis, it sounded interesting. Glad to hear it's actually very good and executed well

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Corbin/ Corbin

    Wow. That trailer didn't look appealing to me, so to see that it's this good boosts my interest.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

    Do you see this as a legit Best Picture contender? I know with the Ws anything is possible, but the story seems a little slight (not in a bad way, just too small for the Academy) to contend for the top prizes. I figure Dench replaces Blanchett in the Best Actress race though.

    • http://www.smartfilm.blogspot.com SmartFilm

      I wouldn't go so far as to say that " Dench replaces Blanchett in the Best Actress race." While I doubt that Dench can steal Blanchett's thunder, I do think this will bump her into the category of a likely nominee.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

        The Academy loves her though. Not at a Meryl level, but she's been nominated six times and her only win was for a very limited role. Blanchett also has an Oscar and is much younger. I'm also just assuming the Weinstein machine will be in full force behind her, since there's no one from The Butler (which looks like their lead movie this year) in that category. Sort of like how they were able to get Meryl the Oscar for The Iron Lady while also positioning The Artist for Best Picture. That's how I see it anyway.

  • http://themoviegurusblog.blogspot.com The Movie Guru

    My excitement meter for this just went through the roof. Glad to hear that despite several clunkers, Tiff is turning out good after all.

  • http://moviereviewninja.com themoviewatcher

    Happily suprised at the high grade.

  • Wilted Youth

    I also saw it, and I can attest to everything Brad says in his review. It's an excellent film, with the perfect balance of humor, heart and emotion, and Dench is assured an Oscar nod for her performance. I went in knowing that it pleased the crowds in Venice, but I wasn't expecting to be wowed myself. One of the best films of the year so far, without a doubt.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    I actually watched the trailer again for this one tonight so im happy its got a decent review, this looks like a role made for Dench so its no surprise that she's knocked it out of the park.
    As for Steve Coogan, im not a big fan but he looks good here, he just needs a good director to iron out those trademark mannerisms that us Brits have gotten used to with him. Viva La Philomena

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Anna/ Anna

      I LOVE Steve Coogan in In the Loop. He has a small part but I think he's absolutely hilarious. The scene with his mom is amazing. =D

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

        I agree, he's great in that scene, perhaps it's when he writes his own stuff.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HelloKitty/ Hello Kitty

    Top notch review. Dench is always great. It will be interesting to see how Coogan and Dench play off each other. Their acting styles are do different.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

    It comes through loud and clear in the review how happy this movie made you Brad. Nice review and I'm glad you got to see this one. I hope it plays near me.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Hudsucker/ Hudsucker

    I honestly thought it'd be bad. Now I gotta change my Oscar predictions even more!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Anna/ Anna

    This movie looks so middle-of-the-road in my opinion. It has been getting some good reviews though, perhaps it's actually good?

    But I still think I will pass this one.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Newbourne/ Newbourne

    Wait, so is this some religious film?? I don't really feel like wasting 2 hours on a film that is "heavily guided" by religion.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      Would you refuse to see Doubt on the same grounds? I think that's a great movie and you didn't have to be Catholic to like it.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

        Oh I saw Doubt recently, that's a fantastic film, so well acted.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Jake17/ Jake17

      That's just as bad as the religious people who refuse to watch movies with even a little bit of inappropriate content, despite the positive themes or the good things they could learn. If you REALLY can't stand religious themes (even the more positive and universally accepted virtues), that's fine, but it's hardly fair to call movies with religious characters or themes a waste without even seeing it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/ghislaine/ ghislaine

    I'm really impressed by your TIFF coverage. You're seeing a lot of movies AND also managing to quickly turn out and post well written reviews. You must be extremely well-organized. I'm glad you're seeing so many films you like. This looks like a great movie year, full of so many striking and different films.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Kimberlesk/ Kimberlesk

    Just recently heard of this film and saw the trailer. Glad to read that it was good - I was planning on seeing it. Thx.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/icerose/ cynthia dower

    This definitely deems to be getting good reviews and definitely one I will be seeing.Judy Dench is always watchable even when the role is uninspired but this sounds intriguing

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

    This is how I pronounce Philomena:


  • michel Debar

    Philomena-Deadly Endings Novel

    Philomena is like Deadly Endings the best
    selling novel, both look at the Catholic Church stealing babies. Deadly Endings
    by Raymond Russell has just been released in paperback and shows the pain and
    heartbreak of a young Spanish woman, whose baby was stolen by Catholic nuns in
    Madrid. Unlike The film Philomena, Deadly Endings has an in depth view of the
    way women have been generally overpowered by society. Definitely a five star
    heart-breaking story.

  • thebioscopist

    I just got back from the cinema, after watching Philomena, and whole heartily concur with the Grade A review. Coogan picked a great story to tell and Judy Dench gave one of her finest performances.