Review: Philomena

Based on Philomena Lee’s real story, directed by Stephen Frears and starring the ever excellent Judi Dench and the multi-talented English comedian Steve Coogan. An old Irish woman and a BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith’s journey of searching Philomena’s lost child after 50 years of silence.

The story is told simply and delightfully with lots of heart and sense of humor over a sad and unfortunate story of a child being removed by force from a helpless young loving mother at a Catholic convent in Ireland. Even though this film often appears to be TV like and without giving much of background story of the system, nor the reason why this specific Catholic convent intentionally and cold-heartedly blocked the connection over half of a century, despite of the need of reconciliation from both mother and child, the smart script writing and this contrast pair of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan’s performance is truly worth to see.

Although the reason in depth and self-searching are not the motivation of this film, we can grant the 98 minutes of our life and heart to join this lost son searching journey to Roscrea in the centre of Ireland where this Catholic convent is located and where Philomena’s son was taken away from her, and travel overseas to Washington D.C. where Philomena’s son lived and worked as a White House lawyer.

Philomena Lee lost her mother and entered the convent at the age of six. Without knowing anything on how to behave as a regular young woman, the young and innocent Philomena has an intimate encounter with a charming young man at a county fair which got her pregnant at age of 18. Her pregnancy is of course a serious sin in the eyes of the nuns who forced her to sign a document to give away her rights to keep her baby when she gives birth in 1952 – until Philomena’s daughter persuades the political journalist and advisor Martin Sixsmith, who has lost his job at BBC, to write a personal story of her mother’s tragic past.

Steve Coogan who plays Martin Sixsmith, and also the co-writer of the script, is half Irish and is familiar with the old Irish ladies of the same generation. He saw Philomena Lee’s story in the newspaper and convinced Judi Dench who is of the a similar age as Philomena, to play a living personality for the first time. Dench and Coogan met the shy Philomena and were impressed by her optimist eye to see her past and her forgiveness to these cold-hearted nuns who never let her meet her son in time after her life long research.

The storytelling style is back and forth between the lost child research and the flash back of Philomena’s past at the convent. We learn to fall in love with Philomena and Martin’s characters and fully enjoy these two wonderful actors’ interaction. Even though the film gives no explanation of the convent’s decision, nor the truth of the adoption, it actually leads audience to more questions and raises the blame on the Catholicism.

Some sources said that the convent didn’t sell the babies but asked for a generous amount of donation from the adoptive parents. And of course, this does not explain why these nuns refused to help to connect mother and child if they both were willing to reconcile. And of course this convent is just the tip of an iceberg of a long list of the same story which makes this film valuable for whoever believe they have been sold or given away, when their mothers were never willing to do so.
– Shumaï Chou