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Sometimes a film will surprise you by just how unexpectedly good it is. Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Liam, My Beautiful Launderette), with a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena is one of those films. An extraordinary story about a woman's real-life search for the child she was compelled to give up for adoption fifty years earlier, it's also a marvelous character study of two highly mismatched people brought together by chance to solve a mystery with both knowing that the odds are very much against them. And even though this sort of story has been done many times before, Philomena not only manages to avoid cliche, it takes surprising twists and turns along the way showing that real life can indeed trump the best that fiction has to offer. It engages you from the very beginning, draws you further in with each scene until you are so deeply invested in the characters and their quest that everything that unfolds on the screen matters to you.

The plot begins with Philomena Lee (marvelously played by Judi Dench) , a retired Irish woman living in England with her grown daughter, staring at a small old photograph of a little boy about 3 years old. When her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), asks, Philomena reveals a secret she's kept all her adult life - that when she was a young girl in Ireland she had a son out of wedlock that she was forced, very much against her will, to give up for adoption. The details of her story are revealed in flashbacks in which we see young Philomena (a compelling performance by Sophie Kennedy Clark) held in one of Ireland's now infamous Magdalene Asylums, institutions run by various orders of nuns where many young Irish girls of the time were sent for getting pregnant (as well as any number of other "improprieties" such as engaging in prostitution, being promiscuous or sometimes just for flirting), becoming virtual prisoners - and slave labor - beyond the reach of the secular law and with no hope of appeal. She has been haunted by this her entire life, always wondering what became of her little boy, and finding her every attempt to find out thwarted by the implacable bureaucracy of the Irish church.

At the same time, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan in a deft counterpart to Dench), a former adviser to the current Labour government at the time, has just lost his job due to a minor scandal due to something he said. Given the sack in his mid-fifties, Martin is at loose ends, unsure of what to do with himself, vacillating between taking up running or pursuing a vaguely-formed notion of writing a book on Russian history. Prior to working in government though, Martin was a journalist of sorts, and while at a party an editor friend of his suggest that perhaps he should try his hand at doing a "human interest" story. Jane, who happened to be at the party, overhears this and approaches Martin with the story of her mother's dilemma over her lost son, thinking that perhaps he can help. Martin, who had openly said he wasn't interested in doing human interest story as he considered them nothing but fluff, brushes her off. But later, when pondering his options, he finds himself drawn back to Jane's idea. He gets her name and number from another friend and calls her to set up a meeting with Philomena, and soon they're off, going first to the convent in Ireland, where Martin learns firsthand just what Philomena has been up against.

I can't speak of what subsequently unfolds plot-wise without spoiling the revelations and discoveries that are made, but a lot of what makes the film so enjoyable is simply watching Dench and Coogan's mismatched characters interact with each other. Where Martin is world-weary, a bit cynical and of a suspicious nature, Philomena is trusting, irrepressibly chatty, and finds delight in the simplest things, all of which tends to drive Martin up the wall. But in spite of the first impression that we first get of her, as the film progresses Philomena reveals that she's far from naive about life, having moments where she shows a remarkably clear-eyed view of the world (particularly when it comes to sex). It's simply that she refuses to let the bad things that have happened to her color her view of everything else in life. But this attitude, while in some ways admirable, is not very helpful when one is up against forces that are deliberately trying to prevent people from digging up the past, and this is where Martin's suspicious nature proves its worth as he begins to examine the stories they're being told and openly question their veracity, a thing Philomena by nature is not capable of. But what truly works more than anything else is the way Dench's Philomena is delightfully funny even though she's not trying to be, completely oblivious to the way she's coming across to Martin, while Coogan's Martin is hopelessly inept at being funny, most especially when he's trying to be, one of those unfortunate individuals who cannot tell a joke to save their life. It's a comic chemistry of a very human kind, made completely natural by two superb actors at the top of their form.

Also worth mentioning is the beautiful film score by Alexandre Desplat that heightens the mood without intruding on or distracting from the events on screen, and the cinematography by Robbie Ryan that really captures the intimacy of the story and the characters involved.

On a side note, it helps if you can find Peter Mullan's 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, which is all about the Magdalene Asylums and their decades-long horrendous abuses of vulnerable young Irish women, most notably forcibly taking their children away from them and compelling the women to work in the institution's laundries which the nuns operated as a commercial enterprise, reaping the profits while the women working in them got nothing. The parts of Philomena that only touch on those abuses fall into greater context if you've seen the earlier film.

Highly, highly recommended as an engaging film on every level, a very human story worth hearing, and for the wonderfully mismatched chemistry between Dench and Coogan's characters.
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"Philomena" (2013 release from the UK; 95 min.) brings the story ("inspired by true events", we are reminded at the beginning) of Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) and Philomena Lee(played by Judi Dench). As the movie opens, we learn that journalist Sixsmith just lost his job (Sixsmith: 'I'm depressed because I just go the sack'; his doctor: 'But it wasn't your fault'. Sixsmith: "that's why I'm depressed!") and is now contemplating writing a book about Russian history. Meanwhile, through flashbacks we learn that in the early 1950s Philomena became pregnant at a young age. Her parents gave her into care of the nuns at Roscrea Abbey in Ireland, where eventually her young son was given up/sold to an American couple. Philomena has been wanting to find her son ever since. Philomena's daughter convinces Sixsmith to take on this "human interest story", and off go Sixsmith and Philomena looking for her son. To tell you more would ruin your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.

Couple of comments: Steve Coogan pretty much took on this project, and in addition to starring, he also co-wrote the script and produced the movie. I very much enjoyed his restrained performance. Even better is Judi Dench, now in het mid-to-late 70s yet seemingly better than ever. While the movie is ostensibly about Philomena looking for her son, the movie is actually much more about the at first awkward relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith, and the "fish out of water" experiences when Philomena gets to the US. The chemistry between Dench and Coogan is palpable, and it truly carries the movie (Philomena: 'do you want a N-Tune?', to which Sixsmith responds: 'if I hum it, will you play it?', ha!). But the last 15-20 min., when all is revealed, of course will tuck at your heart, so bring a Kleenex or two. Make sure to stay when the credits start rolling, as not only do we learn what became of Philomena and Sixsmith, but we also get to see real-life pictures of them.

I had seen the trailer of this a few times in recent weeks and couldn't wait to see it. The movie finally opened this weekend here in Cincinnati, and the Sunday matinee screening I saw this at was quite packed, and not surprisingly heavily leaning towards seniors. The crowd laughed and hollered at all the right times, and ate up this movie. Bottom line: while perhaps not the great, serious movie that one might have expected, "Philomena" is a moving 'human interest story' nevertheless, and worthwhile checking out, be it In the theatre or on DVD/Blue-ray.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon November 30, 2013
You may ask what is Judi Dench up to this time? I wonder if this wonderful actress ever dreamed her career would continue to soar into her golden years. I hasten to add that everything you have heard in praise of this film is richly deserved. This is a road picture without the outrageous calamities that usually beset players in this genre; it is a gentle comedy without demeaning any of the characters; and it is also a very effective drama about a young mother and her long-lost child.

This PG-13, pleasantly scripted dramedy was co-written by Jeff Coke (Lots of TV) and Mr. Coogan himself, based on the book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith. You will see no sweaty bodies (except when Philomena gives birth), hear no gunshots, and see no vehicular mayhem. What a relief!

We have:
* Judi Dench ("Skyfall") is Philomena Lee. Many decades ago, as a pregnant teenager abolished to a convent, she was forced to give up her out-of-wedlock boy as penance. She has searched for him for a long, long time. This woman is not worldly, but she IS wise...
* Steve Coogan ("What Maisie Knew") is Martin Sixsmith, a jaded journalist who suffers from a mild case of depression; he did after all, just lose his job. When he is first approached about this story, his reaction is strictly negative. "Human Interest Stories" are NOT his cup of tea! This may be the first time I've found this actor appealing.
* Anna Maxwell Martin ("North and South") is Jane, Philomena's daughter who is convinced her mother deserves to know what happened to her little boy after he was taken from her. Jane is the one who approaches the journalist...

The facts, as they are uncovered, are NOT kind to the Catholic Church, nor to the people who administer the penances for their parishioners. In recent years, much has been disclosed about the treatment of young girls and orphans in Ireland, courtesy of the Church, so there is no big surprise here. This simply puts a face on one of its victims.

The home movies that appear throughout seem so authentic, it's hard to know if they are real or not. I can't find anything that tells me, so I think this is simply an extremely sophisticated blend of fact and fiction. Kudos to the artists who put this together! You may be sure I will pre-order my DVD from Amazon.
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on December 4, 2013
Despite the juiced-up facts and figures surrounding the real Philomena Lee's story, this movie is unforgettably rich with raw emotion and a gripping immediacy that feels utterly real. Credit Judi Dench and director Stephen Frears for almost never going for the sentimental, and allowing this tragic, but ultimately redemptive, story unfold before our eyes - and certainly in our hearts. I cannot remember the last time I felt the way I did in a movie theatre while watching this movie: I forgot entirely where I was, so completely absorbed into the people on the screen. With each revelation, this movie earns its tears, and once again (think The Magdalene Sisters) shines a harsh light on those infamous Irish "laundries", attributing even more terrible sins to the pious nuns and priests who ran them. Philomena, embodied by the glorious, infinitely watchable, utterly human Ms. Dench, emerges as a striking figure of compassion and forgiveness amid so much deceit and cruelty. Philomena will stay with you.
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on February 15, 2014
{4.5 stars}

PHILOMENA is a fine comedy about some very serious issues, a smart film that evokes all sorts of emotions. It also has the advantage of being closely based on a true story involving some fairly prominent political figures. While it may not have the heavily dramatic twists and turns that many desire, there is well-earned surprise and revelation here. Judi Dench is her usual great in the lead role, and Steven Coogan is also most convincing as Martin Sixsmith, a tabloid journalist who discovers that "silly human interest stories" for "weak-minded" people can involve matters that any intelligent person should care about. Outstanding acting by many of the supporting cast as well, a wonderfully rich script, and expert cinematography that gives us some stunning views of rural Ireland.

There is an interesting mesh of somber, often disturbing back-story of Philomena's adolescence and pregnancy in an Irish orphanage during the 1950s and more upbeat yet moving front-story of her search for the son she hasn't seen in 50 years. The storyline is amazingly well-put-together: Even the apparently irrelevant comic asides relate to the story in a meaningful way.

Note: I agree with another reviewer who stated that the cover photo for this film is VERY misleading as to PHILOMENA's atmosphere and general content.
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on January 2, 2014
Perhaps the most profound movie I've seen this year.

Remember this is based on a true story. And remember Judi Dench is well regarded for portraying "real people" with authenticity...true to the person. So when I realized that through out this journey Dench's Philomena did not allow herself to get caught up in anyone else's issues or agendas, I was riveted to what I was learning about forgiveness - compassion - and transcendent love that takes a mother beyond the temptations of anger that would weaken her resolve and distract her from her path to reunion. Her single-mindedness penetrates to a purity of heart that humbled me... there was only one thing that mattered... finding her child. Clearly, Dench's Philomena had been preparing her heart for 50 years for reunion. From the moment Philomena reveals to her daughter the photograph of her son.... everyone has an opinion and employs their powers of persuasion... either to pursue her intention or to abandon it. The focus of the reunion wasn't about what Philomena would gain, or achieve from the reunion -- the reunion was the fruit of her love for her child. She wasn't about settling scores.... nor punishing anyone - not even herself. She didn't allow anyone's anger and rage to penetrate her tranquility of spirit... her peace.... THESE qualities --- what Philomena brought in her heart for the journey of reunion --- these serve as a model for anyone considering a reunion.

Don't be distracted by who helps and who deters ... focus on how centered Philomena stays. Pure Grace! It would be a mistake to focus on what she did and miss how she did it. She did it with a purity of heart, and a peace that could not be uprooted by anyone. And she even avoided the trap of trying to change the opinions of others. She let her love bear witness. I was deeply aware of how far I was from staying at peace in such combative circumstances! Tilting at windmills and getting distracted by my own brokenness. So... this is what the Beatitudes look like when lived in everyday life. The film is a primer... for anyone yearning for a reunion of any type... and it is one of the most profound witnesses to the truth of the Beatitudes.
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on December 14, 2013
What can I say?

The critics applauded this film. It didn't look like there was any violence so I knew my wife might like it, AND it was at our favorite theatre, one of those old places that're cold inside like when I was a kid, and my wife and I, both in are 60s, are often among the youngest there!

What better a combination?

Philomena (Dame Judi Dench) starts out--as we all do--young. There's a short reference to the young man with whom she had an affair, upwards of a half century ago, which left her "with child." Her parents rejected her, and she ended up as slave labor in a convent in Ireland, along with her young son.

(There was another film several years ago about how those wretched nuns treated the girls in the Irish convent well into the 20th century, so, at long last, exposure of some of that oppression is being revealed!)

In the meantime, here, late in the 20th century (That's when it took place.), journalist Martin Sixsmith's (Steve Coogan) career is on the wane. He needs something, and he ends up with Philomena who wants to find out what happened to her son, who another flashback in the film points out was taken from her, by the highest bidder, still another thorn in the Church's side!

When I saw Coogan, I was wondering, do I know that guy? Where have I seen him before. My God he looks familiar! When I got home I checked out my movie database. I've seen him before in, of all things, "Tropic Thunder," which had a dramatically different theme than this film!

Now, I'm afraid to give anything away about the film so I'll only point out it has just enough one-liners to make the script delightfully entertaining, in addition to sentimental. Look for one about her finding out that her son had a harp on his lapel...and there are others.

And the make up. The role of Sister Hildegard--I wonder if that was the Mother Superior's real name or if the character's name was taken from the noted 12 century matriarch Hildegard von Bingen, much of whose music I have in my collection of ancient music--was played by Barbara Jefford. Not only was her acting superior, but the make-up: She sent from being a relatively young sister of upwards of 50 years ago to an ancient nun in a wheelchair, and she looked "natural" as both. So, between the acting and the make-up, we have a couple of real winners! Her little soliloquy toward the end decrying Philomena for her promiscuity, while "I maintained my celibacy" or something like that was so on-target from an elderly sister that it bordered uncomfortable!

And, as a veteran of 12 years of Catholic education, my role as a theology graduate student when I was in my 40s, my having worked for the Catholic Church for four years, and still having some dear friends still "in the habit," I can speak for there having been that kind of repression not that many years ago, and that, thank heaven, most of it is now history.

I feel like I could have said more except that I don't want to give much away. it's definitely worth seeing, maybe even more than once.
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on April 26, 2014
It's not responsible, let alone fair, to paint an entire religious sect with one brush, or even to paint one geographical area of that sect with one brush, but "Philomena" pretty much succeeds in convincing American viewers of the perfidy of the Irish Catholic Church, an institution whose resume includes child sexual abuse cover-ups and, as featured here, the "Magdalene Laundries" of the last century, in which compromised young women were walled up against their will to serve as slave labor for the laundry business of Ireland's nunneries. If the women survived the ignorant medical treatment during the childbirth process, they were allowed brief visitations with their own children on site until rich couples (mostly Americans, as it turned out) arrived to quite literally buy the little tykes. The exquisite cruelty -- cruelty by design, doubtless -- is almost beyond comprehension, in terms of such happenings occurring anywhere in Western civilization in the 20th century after the Second World War. One expects such stories from places like Sudan, the Caucasian steppes, the Middle-East desert, or other so-called "Third World" garden spots, but the story "Philomena" describes occurred in Ireland. In the 19 (not 18) 50s. The fuzzy and cheerful home of leprechauns, the Guinness Brewery, and other touristy delights. The shame will remain until the Magdalene orphans and their mothers are all finally buried, at which time the whole sorry affair will become yet another frowny-faced asterisk pointing to a footnote in the history of an institution that dares to wonder why so many people (in the West, at least) have either left the flock entirely or define themselves as "lapsed".

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, the little old Irish lady determined to find her long-lost son, is dependably excellent. Her character may be defined as a "cup is half-full" type of person, while her foil, Steve Coogan as journalist and inept politico Martin Sixsmith, may be defined as a "cup is half-empty" type of person. What this movie makes clear is that to get anything done or even to find out anything in this world, you need both types of people, preferably working together. A can-do, forgiving attitude can (and will, and is) taken advantage of by the malignant elements in the world; a smooth, sophisticated cynicism is merely insufferable without a cause to reignite passionate idealism. And boy, does Coogan ever need a cause in this movie. But once he finds it and believes in it, he's a bulldog. Without spoiling anything, we're far more sympathetic to his stance during the movie's climactic confrontation than we are to Dench's, but it helps to remember that the scene might not take place without Dench's diplomatic entree into the nunnery in the first place.

Some nitpicks: I wonder if director Stephen Frears and Coogan (who also wrote the co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope) is too willing to settle for scene construction that turns some of the dialogue into crowd-pleasing middle-brow bromides ("That's hard for me! -- to say, 'I forgive you", etc.). Dench worried about the obesity of Americans because of portion-sizes at restaurants is also a groaner, which goes hand-in-hand with the whole fish-out-of-water thing that comes with an elderly Irish lady traveling in our fair land. "We have no Mexicans where I come from," she tells the short-order cook -- that sort of thing. I'm probably in the minority here, but I would've preferred that Frears and the writers left out all attempts at crowd-pleasing humor, instead mining the humor organically from the particularities of the characters themselves. For instance, it's a bit funnier when Coogan has to endure Dench's recounting of every plot-point in her favorite romance novels -- now that's the real-life stuff. We also probably didn't require the prerequisite Spiritual Argument between the two protagonists that comes straight out of Screenplay Cliches 101.

But, all in all? Engaging, enraging, and well worth the investment of your time. Educational too, if you haven't heard of the "Magdalene Laundries" before now (and if you're American you probably haven't). 4 out of 5.
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I have just seen in a local theatre the film "Philomena." I hardly know how to describe it. I went because I have never seen Judi Dench in a bad movie and because of the recent trailer I saw. And another reason: a friend of mine, adopted as an infant, now at 70 has learned that she has a brother and sister and has made contact with them and has gleaned precious information about her birth mother who died several years ago. I do not believe I have ever seen another human happier than she is right now.

I cannot remember when I have found a movie so powerful and disturbing. I recently heard Scott Simon on NPR use a phrase about an interview on "Story Corps" that describes perfectly my reaction: "it peels away the heart." Based on the book by Martin Sixsmith and directed by Stephen Frears ("The Queen"), "Philomena" relates the story of a young pregnant Irish girl who gave up a child for adoption and for 50 long years wanted to find him. This is all I knew from the trailer and if any reviewer is intent on telling someone planning to see the film much else, I would advise you not to read that review.

I was devastated by the film. Two times during this hour and a half film that seems much shorter I screamed out at the film, a first for me. (I apologized to the woman seated two seats from me when the credits went up.) I cannot imagine that the movie will not reduce you to tears. I left the theatre angry and sad-- I vote for the journalist Mr. Sixsmith's (Steve Coogan) reaction to the events that take place rather than Philomena's for whatever it's worth. Philomena Lee is a much better human being than I; she is right of course when she says that hate destroys the hater. I have just read via the internet her thoughtful, beautiful response in writing to a review by Kyle Smith in the NEW YORK POST in which he said that the movie is "a sucker punch" and that it attacks both the Catholic Church and Republicans. Ms. Lee is obviously a woman with class. Part of her gentle letter to Mr. Smith reads as follows: "Stephen's movie is not an attack. . . It is a testament to the undying bond that exists between mothers and their children." To that I say, say amen, somebody. Smith's review might be the nastiest I have ever read. And he totally ignores the scenes from near the end of the film when nuns-- and the last time I checked they were Catholic-- had a chance to do a kind and human, surely Christ-like deed and chose not to.

While the writer and director take some liberties with the facts-- for example, Ms. Lee who worked for 30 years as a nurse in real life, is portrayed in the movie as sometimes a bit silly, reading romance novels and being too complimentary to the personnel in restaurants, Mr. Frears' depiction of how the Catholic Church treated both Philomena Lee and her son is completely accurate. My reaction upon seeing the film, as a friend of mine recently opined concerning its massive cover-up of pedophile priests, the Catholic Church has much to answer for. The question to ask, it seems to me, is whether or not what Mr. Frears through the movie says about the Catholic Church or the Republican Party is biased or untrue. After all, isn't the truth supposed to set us all free?

Ms. Lee's story ultimately is about love-- the best kind-- and forgiveness which her letter indicates. Surely Ms. Dench will win awards for her performance in this unforgettable movie.

Addendum: For anyone interested in knowing more about this remarkable woman, Philomena Lee was interviewed for an article that appeared in the NEW YORK TIMES on November 30, 2013.
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on April 27, 2014
As a practicing Roman Catholic I approached this film with a little trepidation cautious that it may be another example of Hollywood bashing organized religion. That said I am also aware of the child abuse scandal that was not only exposed in my own diocese but others throughout the U.S. After a lot of soul searching you come to the conclusion that our Church not only encompasses imperfect clergy but parishioners searching for a way to lead their lives the way Christ would. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a woman at the twilight of her life who has gained peace and the ability to forgive notably the Sacred Heart sisters who sold her son for adoption. When the film begins Philomena is a woman looking for closure in her life wanting to find out what happened to the toddler son taken from her before she had a chance to grow as a woman and a mother. She is assisted in an odyssey that will take her from England to Ireland to America by a recently sacked BBC investigative journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who is looking for a human interest story that will get him back in the game. Sixsmith is the polar opposite of Philomena not only a lapsed Catholic but an embittered cynic. Their journey together is not only a fact finding one but one where Sixsmith reconnects with his humanity under the positive tutelage of Philomena which allows for his personal growth. "Philomena" will wring your emotions like few films can. Dench's work is one of great nuance and warmth. She and Coogan have great chemistry that brings out the best out of each performer. Not an easy film to watch, particularly if you are Roman Catholic, but an imperative nonetheless.
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