Editor’s note: Our review of Philomena originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release today.
In a strictly paint-by-numbers world, Stephen Frears’ Philomena is one hell of a prestige picture bound for awards season glory – who could possibly balk at a Judi Dench-starring true-life tale of a woman’s decades-long quest to find the baby who was taken from her by the evil Irish Magdalene laundries? – but the final execution of the film is so contrived and unoriginal that it all but begs for an immediate remake that possesses even a drop more sensitivity. Even with the essential inclusion of Steve Coogan (who also helped script the film) as a smirking journalist on the outs with the entire world, Philomena never fully embraces either its humor or its drama. Uneven and weirdly insensitive, Philomena is unable to combine its many elements into something rich, despite prime subject matter.
The film centers on the heartbreaking real life story of Philomena Lee (Dench), an Irishwoman who was forced to give up her first child while toiling in a Magdalene laundry, a church-run home for “fallen women” who got pregnant out of wedlock. (The laundries were indeed real and, shockingly enough, the last Irish one closed only in 1996.) Frears effectively uses flashbacks to mince together the “present day” story of a still-haunted Philomena and the “past” portion that focuses on a stellar Sophia Kennedy Clark as a young Philomena just before her “fall” and through her time at the laundry. Philomena’s young son is taken from her and shipped off to America to live with parents who can pay the hefty fee the laundry’s nuns charge, but when we first meet Philomena, she doesn’t know that, she only knows that her son’s fiftieth birthday is at hand and all her searching has been so far fruitless.
But before we meet Philomena, we have to meet Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist and disgraced public official looking to get back into the reporting game in any way possible – even it means doing something as mainstream as a “human interest story.” What trash!
A series of silly contrivances bring Martin and Philomena together, and while Philomena should be a heart-wringer from start to finish, Frears uses Sixsmith as our entry point, and what a smug, wily, and classist entry point he is. Philomena is by no means a fancy lady, but instead of playing that for charm, Frears and Coogan just make her look like some sort of stupid bumpkin for much of the film’s runtime. It’s an insensitive move, and it’s also just plain weird.
The film eventually finds its footing in the final act – Coogan and Dench’s chemistry becomes much sweeter and much funnier, the contrivances that make even a real life tale hard to swallow lessen, and the big emotional guns finally come out. It’s a great half hour or so of film – funny, charming, sad, satisfying – but the rest of Philomena isn’t so up to snuff, making this one an example of a good idea done quite badly. Your mother, however, will cry throughout the entire thing.
The Upside: The film’s final act is emotionally rich and totally devastating, moments of wonderful humor between Dench and Coogan (who should make a true buddy comedy together as soon as possible).
The Downside: Packed with plot contrivances that seem deranged even packaged as a true story, weakly scripted, disinterested in truly exploring some of the very deep subject matter it covers, strangely dismissive of Philomena Lee for at least half of its runtime.
On the Side: Sixsmith’s book on the subject, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” hit shelves back in 2009, and you can pick up a copy over at Amazon.