2013 / Best Actress / Best Picture

Film #480: Philomena (2013)

Occasionally I find that some films are screened at the cinemas specifically for the purpose of being nominated for Oscars and other awards. For example, back when I reviewed The Queen, I noted how it seemed that the production was originally going to air on TV before Mirren’s performance started to look Oscar-worthy.

The same could definitely be said for Philomena, which is based on Martin Sixsmith’s book about his assistance in the search for the forcibly adopted son of an old Irish lady. Just like The Queen, Philomena is directed by Stephen Frears and to further my suspicions it has been produced by BBC Films. Meanwhile, Sixsmith’s book has been adapted here by veteran TV screenwriter Jeff Pope alongside Steve Coogan; who portrays the former journalist in the film. Although Pope and Coogan’s script received a nomination at the Oscars, it was Judi Dench’s central turn as Philomena herself that was main draw for the Academy. Philomena saw Dench play against type, as her character is a rather vulnerable old lady who is full of regret about an event in her life that she’s kept secret for fifty years. Dench so often portrays strong older women, such as M. in James Bond, that it was odd to see her play such a different character. As the film progresses, Philomena and Martin learn that her son was sold to an American couple by the nuns at the Irish convent in which the baby was born. The scenes in America are perfectly written as Philomena learns that her son had died years earlier and that Martin had actually briefly met him. The final discoveries the pair make are that Anthony, who was renamed Michael, was gay and that he’d actually visited Ireland with the purpose of trying to find his birth mother. This heartbreaking revelation leaves Martin feeling angry but at the same time demonstrates the strength of Philomena’s character by allowing her the chance to forgive the nuns who wronged her.

I’m actually quite surprised that Philomena did as well in America as it did seeing as it attacks two of its favourite institutions; The Republican Party and The Catholic Church. Indeed, there had been accusations that the film was simply a ninety-minute attack of the Catholic Church but I didn’t feel this was true. For example Philomena’s faith is completely unwavering and in fact it allows her to forgive those who have wronged her. The trade of journalism doesn’t come off too well either especially when Martin’s editor forces him to stay in America just after he and Philomena had discovered that Michael had passed away. There were also criticisms of the dramatic license that Pope and Coogan took with their script even though almost every biopic does the same thing. The biggest change between the book and the film is that Philomena never went to America with Martin but I personally don’t think the film would’ve worked if she’d have stayed in the UK. In fact one of Philomena’s best qualities was the odd couple relationship between the wise Irish woman and the cynical former spin doctor. Judi Dench is fantastic in the role of a woman who isn’t as stupid as everyone believes she is whilst Steve Coogan plays to his strengths utilising a mixture of comedy and drama as the sneering Sixsmith. My biggest shock about Philomena is the amount of controversy that it caused as; at the end of the day it’s an enjoyable run-of-the-mill biographical drama that I found to be an easy watch. Though I didn’t get as emotional watching Philomena as I did the first time, it’s still a thought-provoking film to sit through even if I don’t believe it would’ve made it on to the big screen had it not been for Dench’s Oscar-nominated central turn.


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